Apologies for the lack of recent posts. A new job means that I have a little less time for food history. One quick post then in the way of illustrating how recreating even simple historic recipes isn't plain sailing.
One recipe group that I have been interested in for a while are the frumenty (various spellings based on the Latin frumentum meaing grain). They are of interest to me as the dish has been made in England since at least the Medival period, until the mid-20th century. The dish itself has remained did not change all that much during this time span, but the social context did. Basically, the recipe is wheat pounded and seperated from its hulls, then boiled in cow or almond milk until it forms a gel, this mixture was then sweetened, spiced or coloured as appropriate to the the period. During the Medieval period it most often served without sugar with boiled venison as a type of pottage or in non-meat days with porpoise or beaver tail. Despite being mammals the entire of the former and the tail of the latter were counted as "fish". Having eaten beaver tail I can tell you that it tastes completely unlike fish, which why it was popular on fish dominant days I imagine.
By the modern period frumenty had become associated with Christmas eve, as the following 19th century description indicates:
Christmas-eve is celebrated in almost every family by
a supper of frumenty, made of steeped wheat boiled
with milk, apple-pie, cheese, and yule-cake. It is
accounted very unlucky to cut into the cheese before
supper. At the commencement of supper a large fire
is made, on which is placed the yule-log, and atall mould-
candle, called the yule-candle, which is not to be snuffed,
is lighted and placed on the table; a piece of the log
is preserved until the following Christmas by each
prudent housewife, to secure the house from fire during
The popularity if frumenty in 19th rural England is rather interesting as for the most part wheat was a recent addition to the diet, especially in the North. It is possible that this was viewed as a high status dish and was eaten only on festivals where rarities like wheat were more freely available. So popular was frumenty at this period that it was possible to buy the wheat pre-boiled and set into a jelly from vendors. This jelly was called "Creed Wheat" ( to cree grain is to soften it by soaking or boiling) and it is the creed wheat I had a problem with . Buying whole wheat is not a great problem and instructions for preparing the grain where essentially the same since the Medieval period: Beat grain to loosen the hull, then gently boil. Remove the hulls and you will get a wheat gel that will set solid like well made oat porridge. Try as a might I could not get this process to work with the wheat I used. Back to the drawing board. I managed to find another source of wheat, this time with partial removal of the hull ("pearled wheat"). Problem solved, gel formed in roughly 40 minutes of gently boiling. Clearly the important part of all the recipes I looked at was the removal of the hull, however I failed to note this initially. This illustrates part of the difficulty with historical recipes; if I can get this simple process wrong, what hope would I have with a more complicated dish? And in addition, in this instance I had a very good idea what the dish should be like at several stages, often this is not the case with historical recipes.
Above: Wheat in earthenware pot being gently simmered for 8 hours. When this failed to produce a wheat gel, I removed the wheat to a modern saucepan and boiled it hard for about 2 hours - still no gel.
Above: Top right, whole wheat before boiling, and Top left, after ten hours of treatment. Bottom left, wheat with partial removal of hull, and bottom right, after 20 minutes of gently boiling.
Above: Christmas eve frumenty. The creed wheat was mixed with milk, egg yolk, spice and sugar and gently heated to give an indulgent but comforting porridge type dish. I can see why it was popular.
If you are interested in making this dish you could look for pearl wheat (very hard to find) or substitute pearl barley. Least you think this inauthentic, here is a recipe from the end of the 17th century.