If you are a medieval hobbyist or simply a lover of food history, then you may have heard of an ancient pottage called Frumenty. Depending on where you live, you may have even eaten something similar. Such as Russian Kasha.
Frumenty is a hot cereal porridge, which was made of wheat or barley cooked in milk (sweet) or broth (savory). Early recipes were plain, but over time spices, sugar and fruits were added. Some of the more decadent variations thickened it with eggs.
I’ve been using these recipes for years now, which I originally redacted to use in my medieval cookery class. There are three redacted variations here, but the first and most prominent is the one my students always enjoyed best: Furmente wt Porpays (Frumenty with Porpoise) from the 14th century English manuscript, The Forme of Cury.
‘furmente wt porpays‘- tak clene whete & bete hyt smale in a mort’& fanne out clene þe douſt. & þāne waysch hit clene & boyle hit tyl hit be tendur & broken. & þāne tak þe secunde mylke of almaňds & do þ’to. Boyle hē to gyd’ tyl hyt be stondyng & tak þe furſt mylke and alye hit up wt it … and do safroň to þe furmente… and s’ue hit forth. – The Forme of Cury (1390)
Frumenty with Porpoise- Take clean wheat and beat it small in a mortar and fan out clean the dust. And then wash it clean and boil it till it is tender and broken. Then take the *second milk of almonds and do thereto. Boil it together till it be standing and take the first milk and allay it up with it…and do saffron to the frumenty…and serve it forth
This dish was a popular one on meatless days, especially for Lent and Advent. It was common for cooks to serve milk-based frumenty over fish and, in this case, porpoise. This recipe was likely written by the head chef in King Richard II’s court, so porpoise was an appropriate luxury ingredient for a feast.
Frumenty is incredibly quick and easy to make and typically only requires a hulled wheat, a liquid, salt and an optional pinch of saffron for color. Breakfast food! The instructions below are simple enough that breaking them down into detailed steps is unnecessary.
- 1 c Bulgur or cracked wheat
- 1 c almond milk*
- 1c water*
- 1 to 2 c almond milk
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- tiny pinch of saffron (optional)
Combine 1 c. almond milk, 1 c. water with salt and bulgur. Bring to a boil. Simmer for about 20 min. or until liquid has been absorbed. Meanwhile, add saffron to 1-2 c. almond milk to steep. Add to the cooked bulgur and stir. Bring to a low simmer then remove from heat. Serve as is or garnish with honey or dates.
*The original recipe mentions a “first milk” and a “second milk of almonds.” When making almond milk at home, the sieved out almond solids (after making the first milk) would be saved and used again to make another more watery “second milk.” This is why I cook the bulgur/wheat in half water and half almond milk, to replicate the watery second milk.
An Important Note about Almond Milk:
You may use sweetened or unsweetened almond milk, depending on how sweet you like your porridge. For full authenticity, try making your own medieval-style almond milk at home using this recipe or this recipe. Homemade almond milk will give your frumenty a beautifully thick and creamy consistency.
When adding the second measurement of almond milk to the cooked wheat, you may adjust according to personal preference. For a thick oatmeal-like frumenty, use less milk. If you prefer something more like a cereal, use 1 1/2 to 2 cups. Remember, it’s much easier to add milk than to take it away, so start with a smaller measurement and work your way up. My personal preference, especially when using thick homemade milk, is around 1 1/2 cups.
Before we get into the other recipe variations it’s worth learning some of the history behind this ancient dish.
Wheat originated in the Middle East and has a fascinating background that we won’t delve into too deeply here, but its availability did affect how “frumenty” was made over the years. Wealthy ancient Romans used semolina to make a frumentum (grain) porridge called “Punic Porridge.” It was made much the same way as our recipe above, but was thickened with egg and also called for honey and cheese.
Roman food traditions didn’t just disappear after the Fall of Rome, but survived in the cuisines of the various peoples and tribes that inhabited Europe and former Roman territories in the following centuries. There are no known surviving cookery books or manuscripts written by the Angles, Saxons, Normans, and other groups that came into power after the 5th century, but historians do know some of their food traditions based on literature, medical writings and archaeological evidence of the crops that were grown and/or available to them.
For example, the Saxons of Britain had access to wheat but ate significantly more barley. A Saxon-style frumenty or porridge may have been very simple like this one:
Plain Saxon version
Bring 1 cup barley and 2 1/2 cups water or broth to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer; cook, covered, until tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, 40 to 50 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes.
- 1 c. barley pearls
- 2.5 c. water or meat stock
- Additional 2/3 cup milk or stock.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, covered until tender and most liquid absorbed (approx. 40 min). Let stand 5 min. Add 2/3 c. milk or stock. Bring to boil, add salt and stir over low heat.
Notes: Watch it during the simmer time to be sure it doesn’t scald- might not need the full 40 minutes. Adjust amount of milk or stock to suit your taste or change thickness. The length of time you simmer is up to you, the point is for it to thicken. Honey is a good sweetener, if you desire. Choice of stock or milk depends on if this is a side dish or not, sweet or savory.
The Normans, however, tended to eat richer foods and preferred to use wheat over other grains. They were known for absorbing other cultures’ food traditions and ingredients and spreading their cuisines into the areas they conquered in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Normans are often credited with introducing eggs, saffron and sugar to this porridge dish, as well as serving it with venison.
Plain Norman Version
- 2 c. water, stock or milk
- 1 c. bulgur wheat
- Additional 2/3 cup milk or stock
- 2 egg yolks
Bring water to a boil. Remove from heat, stir in bulgur and a pinch of salt. Cover and let stand for 20 minutes.
Add additional almond milk or stock (2/3 cup). Bring to boil, add a pinch of salt and stir over low heat. Add 2 beaten egg yolks. Stir over low heat without boiling until thickened.
Throughout the high and late medieval eras, frumenty became a staple food, especially in upper-class households and at royal banquets. The dish was considered lavish enough to mention in the 14th-century poem Wynnere and Wastoure:
Buk-tayles full brode in brothes there besyde,
Venyson with the frumentee, and fesanttes full riche,
Baken mete therby one the burde sett,
Broad bucks’ haunches, covered in sauce,
Venison with frumenty, and excellent pheasants,
Roast meat beside them, set on the board,
By the 13th century these recipes were finally being written down and preserved for future generations. Wheat was widely available throughout all of Europe, but was the most desirable grain so peasants were forced to gravitate toward other less-expensive options like millet. Frumenty was often an accompaniment to flavorful meats like venison, but on meatless days was served with fish instead. It would either be made thick enough to be eaten on its own or served runnier like a soup or a sauce.
There are many other frumenty recipes found in the cookery books of the Middle Ages. You’ll notice they are all roughly the same, but only with slight regional variations:
Frumenty. Take wheat, prepare it, wash it very well, and cook it in water. When it is cooked, drain it. Take cow’s milk boiled for an instant, add the wheat, and boil it for an instant. Move it to the back of the fire, stir often, and thread in plenty of egg yolks. Some add spices, saffron and venison stock. It should be yellowish and well thickened.– From Le Viandier de Taillevent. Translated from French by James Prescott
To make frumente. Tak clene whete & braye yt wel in a morter tyl the holes gon of; sethe it til it breste in water. Nym it vp & lat it cole. Tak good broth & swete mylk of kyn or of almand & tempere it therwith. Nym yelkys of eyren rawe & saffroun & cast therto; salt it; lat it naught boyle after the eyren ben cast therinne. Messe it forth with venesoun or with fat motoun fresch. – Curye on Inglysch
This Italian version had more spices in it and even suggests substituting rice for the wheat:
XXIV – Maize dish (Frumenty) good and perfectly useful. If you want to make a frumenty, take the wheat and beat it well to when it leaves the shell / husk, then wash it well, then put it to boil not much, then throw away the water, then put into it that fat of the meat that you choose, and it needs to be not too much, and mix spices sweet and strong and saffron, and if you do not have wheat take rice; it will be good – From Libro di Cucina/Libro per Cuoco. Translated by L. Smithson
There are many reasons to try frumenty at home! The main ingredients are generally inexpensive and it’s always a good idea to keep a store of wheat and grains in the pantry. Frumenty is quite simple to make and is very adaptable to your personal tastes. Perhaps the best reason of all is that while this particular recipe was written in 1390, you can still experience a dish that has existed for almost 2,000 years!
Sources and Further Reading
- British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, Colin Spencer. Columbia University Press:New York. 2002 (p. 36-41)
- Food in the Anglo-Saxon Period. Oakden. Accessed Mar. 15, 2020.