A medieval boiled side dish: frumenty

Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge opens with a man buying frumenty (or furmenty) for his family. They’re at a small fair in the deep rural countryside, but even there, frumenty is already an old-fashioned food. By the end of the novel, we meet the frumenty seller as an old woman, and she complains that now nobody will eat it. Even in the early 19th century, it was an archaic hold-over from the Middle Ages, long out of fashion in cities.

You could make something like frumenty by cooking Cream of Wheat hot cereal in almond milk with a pinch of salt. Add a beaten egg yolk, then season it with sugar and a spice like cinnamon or saffron. Medieval cooks probably added honey if they were going for sweet frumenty, since cane sugar was equal in value to pure silver.

But they also made it unsweetened, for example seasoned with chicken broth. Frumenty wasn’t for breakfast or dessert. It was a side dish, like having a square of cornbread next to your fried chicken. It often accompanied venison.

By Thomas Hardy’s time, furmenty (Hardy’s spelling) was always sweetened, perhaps with raisins added. In the novel, the furmenty seller is spiking it with a little rum—or, for a higher fee, more than a little rum.

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