I've just started reading Thomas Hardy's "Mayor of Casterbridge" One vital piece of action involves a bowl of furmity eaten at a county fair sometime around 1830. The man puts a lot of rum in his furmity and ends up selling his wife at public auction... an action he regrets for the rest of his life. But that's not what intrigued me... it was the furmity. Though Hardy feels obliged to describe it to his late 19th century readers, furmity was evidently a very popular dish in the 1830s, known throughout southwest England. Hardy's Wessex was fictional but his descriptions echo the reality of life in Devon and Dorset.
I did some research and found that furmity aka frumenty was very popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Yet by 1830 it was limited to parts of England, and 50 years later it was gone. Why? How do dishes disappear? And what other popular delights have since been forgotten?
Here's the furmity passage from Hardy's book (which is no longer copyright)
"At the upper end stood a stove, containing a charcoal fire, over which hung a large three- legged crock, sufficiently polished round the rim to show that it was made of bell-metal. A haggish creature of about fifty presided, in a white apron, which, as it threw an air of respectability over her as far as it extended, was made so wide as to reach nearly round her waist. She slowly stirred the contents of the pot. The dull scrape of her large spoon was audible throughout the tent as she thus kept from burning the mixture of corn [i.e. wheat kernels] in the grain, flour, milk, raisins, currants, and what not, that composed the antiquated slop in which she dealt. Vessels holding the separate ingredients stood on a white-clothed table of boards and trestles close by. The young man and woman ordered a basin each of the mixture, steaming hot, and sat down to consume it at leisure. This was very well so far, for furmity, as the woman had said, was nourishing, and as proper a food as could be obtained within the four seas; though, to those not accustomed to it, the grains of wheat swollen as large as lemon-pips, which floated on its surface, might have a deterrent effect at first." In a later chapter, the vendor boasts, apparently truthfully, that her furmity was of such high quality, despite Hardy's calling it slop, that rich merchants and aristocrats stopped by for a bowl.
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