Frumenty or fermity is an ancient form of wheat pottage (it appears in the Form of Cury from 1390 but probably has much earlier origins). Traditionally, it is served with venison and in medieval times was an accompaniment to porpoise on non meat days. The name is derived from the latin, frumentum, meaning wheat or corn. Classically, it is made with whole wheat which has had the outer layer of bran removed. It is then boiled in stock or milk, sometimes with spices such a cinnamon and saffron added, until thick and glutinous (apparently in Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge the frumenty sold at Weyhill Fair is laced with rum – a thoroughly ‘degenerate type’ according to Mrs White below). More recently it has been associated with Christmas fare especially in the North of England.
One of the benefits of frumenty’s somewhat solid consistency was that it could be transported and sold as a street food. In Good Food in England (1932) Florence White gives this account of frumenty:
“This cree’d wheat when cold is a firm jelly in which the burst grains of wheat are embedded. It can be sent by post, and if desired it can when heated be sieved and the inner husk thus removed leaving only a thick white jellied mass, but most people like this inner husk left it, and consider it a healthy as well as agreeable form of ‘roughage’, inestimable as a breakfast food, and a fine remedy for intestinal stasis.”
Admittedly it doesn’t sound like a particularly appetising dish, but Elizabeth David declares it to be a ‘splendid invention’ so surely it must be worth revisiting?
Frumenty with Peppered Venison (Serves 4)
Think of this modern version frumenty more as a risotto or pilaff than a ‘porridge’. As well as saffron and cinnamon I’ve included some onion, currants and dried barberries (which give the frumenty a delicious fruity tang, although their vivid scarlet hue fades during cooking), all widely used in medieval cookery. I’ve also used freekeh instead of bulgar wheat but feel free to use the latter. Freekeh is a green wheat which has been roasted giving it a lovely smokey flavour that works really well with the venison. The venison is marinated in port, garlic and pepper which echoes back to sauce aliper, a popular accompaniment to roasted venison and beef during this period.
Ingredients – Peppered Venison
2 cloves garlic, crushed with ½ tsp coarse sea salt
2½ tsp black peppercorns (or used mixed peppercorns)
4 x 125-150g pieces of venison loin (you could use beef fillet instead)
1 tbsp vegetable oil
10g plain flour
100ml beef or chicken stock
½ tsp honey (optional)
Ingredients – Frumenty
1 small onion, finely chopped
200g freekeh or bulgar wheat
2 tbsp dried barberries plus a few extra for garnish
2 tbsp currants
5cm piece cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
½ tsp coarse sea salt
750ml well flavoured, hot beef or chicken stock
3 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
Salt and a squeeze of lemon juice to season
Bring the port to the boil in a small saucepan and boil for 30 seconds. This removes most of the alcohol and makes it less astringent. Allow the port to cool then mix with the garlic. Place in a shallow dish or sealable plastic bag.
Soak the freekeh for 1 hour (there’s no need to soak the bulgar wheat if you are using that instead).
Coarsely crush the peppercorns with a pestle and mortar or place them in a small bowl and crush them with the end of a rolling pin. Reserve ½ tsp of the crushed peppercorns and rub the remainder into the meat. Put the meat in the dish or bag containing the marinade. Leave for at least 1 hour or if possible over night, turning several times.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Fry the onion until it is just starting to take on a golden tinge. Drain the freekeh then add this to the pan and coat with the butter. Add the dried fruits, cinnamon, bay leaves, saffron and salt before pouring in the stock. Bring to the boil then reduce to a simmer and cook for around 1 hour stirring occasionally, or until the grains are tender and the liquid has been absorbed. Remove the cinnamon stick and bay leaves. Season with lemon juice and more salt if you think it needs it then stir in 2 tbsp of the chopped parsley. If you keep the lid on the saucepan it will sit quite happily whilst you sort out the venison. Frumenty is far less demanding than risotto in that respect.
To cook the venison, heat a frying pan until is it very hot. Reduce the temperature then add the oil. Remove the meat from the marinade brushing off as much garlic as you can then fry it on each side until browned. The amount of time this will take will depend on the thickness of the meat and how you like your meat done. Around 2 – 3 minutes, top and bottom, should produce a medium rare result. Cook it for a little longer if you prefer your meat more well done (or less if you like your meat really rare). Remove the meat and place on a plate, cover with foil and allow it to rest whilst you finish the sauce.
Strain the marinade ingredients into the beef stock. Remove any burnt bits of garlic that are in the frying pan then add the butter. Once the butter starts to bubble stir in the flour and allow it to cook for a minute. Gradually, add the stock and port mixture, stirring all the time to ensure the liquid is incorporated. Once all the liquid has been added continue to simmer over a gentle heat for a minute or two. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning accordingly. You may decide the sauce is sweet enough but I find a little honey enhances the flavour so add this now along with the reserved crushed peppercorns (again, this is a matter of taste. I love pepper and like the burst of heat you get when you bite into a peppery morsel. However, the additional peppercorns can be omitted if this isn’t your thing).
Slice the venison fillet then place on top of the frumenty with some of the sauce drizzled over the top. Scatter with the remaining parsley and extra barberries and serve immediately.