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Aug 9, 2007 09:54 AM

Furmity and other long-vanished delights

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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  1. Thanks for the information.I guess food goes out of fashion with the passage of time and for other reasons.

    1. Perceived health benefits (or dangers) seem to drive a lot food fashion nowadays. Until very recently, lard was the spread of choice for many Americans. Now you can find barely a person who knows where to even buy lard because it's so unhealthy compared to butter (as if!). And let's not forget how butter was relegated to the sidelines in the 80s and 90s because margarine was perceived as healthier.

      Americans' taste for hard liquor also seems to have waned now that red wine supposedly cures heart disease, cancer, Hepatitis and German Measels, inter alia.

      6 Replies
      1. re: JungMann

        True. Lard is delicious (and does not contain trans-fat). My favorite hamburger place and my favorite chicken-fried steak place (in Tulsa) both brush the meat with lard.

        Lard may be enjoying a renaissance in New York City.

        1. re: Brian S

          Fatty cuts of pork are certainly enjoying a renaissance here, but mainly among foodies. Most New Yorkers still crinkle their nose at the notion of lard or pork belly, but I do tend to have a disproportionate number of friends in fashion so I'm lucky if I can get them to eat anything other than fiber crackers and Ex-lax.

          1. re: JungMann

            If you're desperate, you can put a post on the NY boards asking which restaurants serve pork belly. Not all countries follow our fashion. You'll get Shanghainese restaurants serving Dong Po pork and Colombian restaurants serving chicharron (caution: chicharron means something different in any Hispanic resto that's not Colombian) and Korean kimchi jigae with pork belly (according to a recent post there) Zak Pellaccio's Fatty Crab has a pickled watermelon and pork belly sandwich.

            1. re: Brian S

              I hope the day never comes where I become so desperate for pork fat that I am searching it out on Chowhound. As it is, I am quite familiar with many of the restaurants that know that fat is flavor; I just lack dinner companions who feel the same way. Shoulder and belly are mainly Sunday treats when I have time to cook; although I did buy myself a bacon chocolate bar from Vosges haute Chocolat in SoHo that has been seeing me through the week.

              1. re: JungMann

                I was delighted to just today find a Pittsburgh restaurant that had lardo on the menu. When we were in Italy, lardo melted on some toasted bread brushed with lemon zest and a little garlic... oh man. Really... if I could get a lardo pizza, wow....

                I'd predict that German food will go out of style very soon in all but the largest cities capable of maintaining an ethnic enclave . It's not a style most non-foodie young people seem to appreciate. Not "bold" or "spicy" or "sweet" enough for today's tastes... and sriracha doesn't really work on sauerbraten (and ooh, they kill little calves, gross OMG!!!111!!!!).

                Tell tale sign... how often do you see German cuisine featured on TFN? You'll find 10 shows on pierogi before you find one on weinerschnitzel.

        2. re: JungMann

          I have about 7 lbs. of lard in my fridge. Locally produced, no partial hydrogenation and yes we drink red wine but really don't pay any attention to the food hysterics. There is always, scotch, bourbon, gin, tequila etc. on hand. Always have some good drk chocolate on hand too.

        3. What a fascinating post.

          One now extinct food that comes to mind is garum -- the ubiquitous condiment among the ancient Romans made from fermented, brined fish. Excavated shipwrecks have actually turned up amphorae with garum deposits. And apparently it's all over Roman recipes, with controversial variations. Indonesian fish sauce may come close, though unlikely to be a direct inheritor.

          Going farther back, from ancient history to prehistory, there must have been certain animals most humans no longer consume -- antelopes, gazelles, sparrows, other kinds of game and fowl. But your question is more interesting, as it's about dishes -- the more or less processed forms in which we took our food -- rather than simply the raw ingredients found to be / made edible.

          My guess is that most 'antiquated' (to use Hardy's descriptor) dishes have probably evolved into alternative forms rather than vanished altogether, and/or remain heritage or ceremonial foods.

          Incidentally, Hardy was interested in all the details and contexts of human development -- e.g., regional dialects, social rituals, geological transformations, architectural ruin. Food would certainly have interested him, too, as an index of social history, and, in the particular passage you cite, of social differentiation -- low cuisine in this case appealing even to the high classes.

          6 Replies
          1. re: sequins

            And what a fascinating reply.

            I think that fish sauce found all over south Asia is very like garum and might have been a direct inheritor. There was some indirect trade with China in those days. Roman ladies loved that silk. And there was a roaring trade between Rome and India. Those Roman aristocrats needed those Indian spices, perfumes and textiles, and no day at the colosseum would be complete without a few savage tigers from India. I'm sure sailors confined to a boat for months loved to talk to new faces in port, and one thing they would talk about is food. "Hey your spices are great but I bet you've never tried anything like our good old Roman fish sauce!"

            You're right about Hardy. A lot of English novelists of the period wrote about the era fifty years past; it was a relief from what they considered the modern age. But Hardy was the only one who described the food. Thackeray (who wrote slightly earlier) would just have said, they ate a sumptuous banquet that cost fifteen pounds.

            1. re: Brian S

              This brings up a whole big intriguing subtopic: foods that met with decline in their native lands but took on new longevity when transplanted into another culture, whether by trade or through human migration -- and in some cases transformed beyond recognition, while in others becoming more purist than the original. Just as there have been maps of the so-called tree of language (although the image is misleading), surely someone could program a layered historical and geographical map of food. I'd love to see such a thing.

              Dissertations on food and literature are no doubt being written at this very moment. Hardy was such a masterful stylist that I don't doubt his meal descriptions were the richest of their kind. I wonder, though, whether other pre-20th-c. writers, perhaps writing in other languages, might have been comparably prolific on the subject of food. With realism came the micro-attention to sensory and material details that glorious food description requires; but what about earlier literature, describing, say, sumptuous banquets, but at length? Or maybe they'd simply *catalogue* the dishes at length. It'd still be great to read some of those. Almost all the writers mentioned in the current 'Food in Fiction' thread on the Food Media/News board are 20th-century.

            2. re: sequins

              Strange how the sweet-sour food favored by the Romans little resembles modern Italian cooking. The garum from Spain was most prized by the Romans and there are still ruins of giant garum manufacturers dotting the Iberian coast. You might be interested to know that some Italian companies have begun selling garum; I see it on ocassion at my Italian market. Perhaps it might make a comeback?

              1. re: JungMann

                so maybe that sweet-sour Italian-American fave Chicken Scarpariello has an older pedigree than I thought.

                and to link this up I just noticed that the kind of wheat kernel used in furmity is called in Latin frumentum. So maybe THAT dish is also older than I thought.

                1. re: JungMann

                  If you do pick up some of that garum from your neighborhood market, please post your impressions!

                2. re: sequins

                  Judging by the description, it sounds like frumenty was a distant ancestor of good old-fashioned English rice pudding, only made with wheat-berries instead of rice... when did they start importing rice into the UK?

                3. The story of mutton -- to my mind the most Victorian of meat dishes -- and its disappearance from American cuisine:


                  1. Blancmange comes to mind -- a seeming staple of Victorian sickbeds (appears in Little Women, among others). Inspired by this, I decided to make blancmange several years ago. Some recipes were basically a cooked milk pudding, but the more authentic ones seem to involve toasted almonds that are ground and heated with milk, then strained to create an almond milk as the basis for the pudding. It was delicious -- like a panna cotta crossed with a Good Humor Toasted Almond Bar.