November 29, 2013 6:18 pm

The history cook: frumenty

How a 14th-century recipe for frumenty ended up on the Christmas menu of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant Dinner
Ashley Palmer-Watts and Polly Russell make frumenty©Nina Mangalanayagam

Ashley Palmer-Watts, head chef at Dinner, and Polly Russell make frumenty

Frumenty is a medieval dish of cracked wheat cooked in almond milk or broth. A close cousin of porridge, it was an everyday staple in the early medieval period. It became less commonplace over the centuries but was still fed to the poor in workhouses through the Victorian period. Though almost unheard of today, frumenty has provided inspiration for a new dish on the Christmas menu at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant Dinner in Knightsbridge.

One of the first documented recipes for frumenty can be found in the 1390 manuscript The Forme of Cury. Written by a master cook from the court of Richard II (1377-1399), this is one of the oldest known cookery manuscripts in the English language. A British Library conservator helped me view it, carefully unrolling it and holding it steady with purpose-made lead “snakes”. As a physical object it’s impressive – made of calfskin vellum stitched together at 30cm intervals, it’s more than 12ft long and contains 196 recipes. It’s in amazingly good nick considering it’s more than 600 years old.

The preamble to the manuscript explains that The Forme of Cury contains recipes for “common pottages and common meats for the household, as they should be made, craftily and wholesomely”, as well as food designed to impress at royal banquets. Frumenty falls into both these camps – there’s a basic recipe for cooking the dish with broth but there’s also frumenty with porpoise, a dish fit for kings. Apt then that Ashley Palmer-Watts, head chef at Dinner, has chosen frumenty to be part of the Christmas menu: “Our approach to Christmas is about the ultimate luxury – that’s what Christmas is about.”

Standing in the kitchen of the restaurant watching Palmer-Watts cook his version of the dish is a surreal experience. The state of the art kitchen is located in the middle of the restaurant. Floor-to-ceiling glass walls turn diners into spectators and chefs into entertainers, a reminder that high-end cooking has always been a form of theatre. Inside the kitchen there are futuristic, bespoke work units with refrigerated drawers, incorporated grill plates and hypersensitive electric hobs. But the heat coming off a pulley-turned-spit, slowly roasting caramelised pineapples, the flash of flame and embers visible when the smoking Josper oven is stoked and the scrubbed-faced chefs working intently at their stations could be straight out of a medieval kitchen.

'The Forme of Cury'©Nina Mangalanayagam

'The Forme of Cury', the 1390 manuscript containing one of the first recipes for frumenty

Historic British gastronomy serves as a muse for Palmer-Watts and Blumenthal, inspiring their acclaimed contemporary cooking – Dinner has just been awarded a second Michelin star. Historical recipes, unearthed in old cookery books and manuscripts (some of which I help to research at the British Library), are the reference points for new recipe development. As Palmer-Watts explains, “What we’re doing are never exact replicas.”

The journey a recipe takes from a historical manuscript on to the menu at Dinner is often long and convoluted. This dish is a case in point. “Frumenty had been simmering away as a possible idea for a long time but we hadn’t got round to developing it,” explains Palmer-Watts. At first it was the name that attracted his attention. “It’s just funny, isn’t it? But then digging into the history, well the story was so good and the ingredients so intriguing we just had to do something with it.”

Usually made to accompany meat or fish, frumenty was served hot with a porridge-like consistency, or was thickened, left to cool and then sliced, rather like polenta. “We found out that frumenty was often cooked with some sort of dried fruit,” says Palmer-Watts. “The cracked wheat, the broth and fruit. That was interesting. And because frumenty often accompanied fish, it was a chance to develop a fish starter inspired by the medieval period.”

Buddha’s hand fruit©Nina Mangalanayagam

Buddha’s hand fruit

Over a number of months the dish was developed. “The only sticking point for frumenty was the fruit. We were trying to shoehorn in fruit and it wasn’t working.” Some weeks before, Palmer-Watts had been given a Buddha’s hand fruit – a fantastical-looking citrus with protruding fingers, no flesh but a highly perfumed flavour. “I didn’t know how we’d use this,” he explains, “but I was grabbing a moment with Heston and he mentioned they’d been pickling some Buddha’s hand in the development kitchen lab. It was perfect – lovely and sherbety. It worked so well with the frumenty.”

Finally, a frumenty starter of grilled octopus, smoked sea broth, pickled dulse seaweed and lovage was ready for the menu. “With the toasted spelt cooked with vegetable stock to accompany the octopus, then we have something that’s not miles away from the original. It’s been one of our most popular dishes and I think it’s one of our strongest,” Palmer-Watts says.

Knowing that frumenty was often given as a gift during the festive period in medieval times, Palmer-Watts decided to incorporate it into his Christmas menu: “If we could meld lobster into the frumenty octopus dish, using seaweed available in December, we’d have something really special.”

Laid out ready for Palmer-Watts on stainless steel trays are the prepped ingredients: pickled dulse, luminescent rounds of pickled Buddha’s hand fruit, a tiny mound of spelt that’s been cooked in vegetable stock, a pile of bright green salty fingers and one of samphire, and three lobster tails. A small pan of smoked mussel stock and another of lobster emulsion simmer gently while Palmer-Watts cooks the lobster three different ways. He selects the one that has the perfect, just-cooked silky texture for the final dish. Then, applying the same degree of care and concentration as the library conservator who handled The Forme of Cury, he assembles the first trial serving of lobster frumenty.

Frumenty©Nina Mangalanayagam

The finished dish

The finished result looks like a perfect, sparklingly clear rock pool, or a dish made for a mer king. And it doesn’t disappoint in the eating – there’s smoky broth, rich, gelatinous lobster, crunchy salty fingers, salt-sweet pickled seaweed and a creamy herb emulsion that somehow tastes like the very essence of an English garden. The result is intense and complex but not tricksy. Palmer-Watts seems pleased. “There’s so much in it but it’s so pure. The next time Heston’s here for dinner I’ll get a couple of lobster tails in and see what he thinks. He loves the octopus so I think he’ll love this too.”

Conceding that most home cooks would struggle to reproduce the restaurant recipe for lobster frumenty, Palmer-Watts sets about making a home-proof version. With all the ingredients prepped, it’s ready in less than 10 minutes, a one-pot frumenty made with cockles, scallops, spelt, vegetable stock, samphire, pickled seaweed and Buddha’s hand fruit. It’s more relaxed and less refined than its restaurant sibling but it’s still impressive. “This is a stick-it-in-the-middle-of-the-table-type dish,” Palmer-Watts enthuses. “A sharing dish.”

Six hundred years have passed and porpoise isn’t on the menu any more but Palmer-Watts’s versions of frumenty – albeit translated, interpreted and distilled – are still good enough for a king.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library. To comment, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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Ashley Palmer-Watts’s Frumenty with roast scallops, clams, pickled dulse and sea beet

Frumenty with roast scallops, clams, pickled dulse and sea beet©Nina Mangalanayagam

Once the various components of this recipe have been prepared, the final cooking, all done in one large pot, takes no more than 10 minutes. Aside from the ingredients specified here, there are an infinite number of variations that would work, depending on availability and preference. Sea aster or sea rosemary could be used to replace the seaweeds listed here and quantities could be varied if necessary – add more samphire if you can’t locate sea beet or double the sea purslane if sea beet isn’t available, for example. Razor clams, mussels, cuttlefish or squid would make good alternatives to the scallops and clams. And if you cannot find a Buddha’s hand fruit then use a pickled Amalfi lemon or, if you don’t have time to pickle, use grated zest and lemon juice instead.

Serves 4

Ingredients

8 scallops

500g clams

10g chopped garlic

160ml vegetable stock

200g cooked spelt

20g sea purslane

40g samphire

20g sea beet leaves

30g pickled Buddha’s hand fruit sliced from the “fingers”

8 pieces of pickled Buddha’s hand fruit, centre slices

40g pickled dulse plus a couple of pieces for finishing

10g chopped coriander

30ml pickle liquid from the dulse

20ml pickled lemon juice

Ingredients for the pickled Buddha’s hand fruit

100g water

75ml Chardonnay vinegar

40g caster sugar

1 Buddha’s hand fruit

Ingredients for the pickled dulse

360ml water

72ml Chardonnay vinegar

35ml white soy

5g sugar

4g salt

20g dried dulse

Ingredients for the vegetable stock

250g leeks, white part only, sliced

200g carrots, grated

175g onions, sliced

175g button mushrooms, grated

85g fennel, grated

85g celery, sliced

40ml olive oil

1 bay leaf

4 thyme sprigs

1.5 litres cold water

25g flat leaf parsley

Ingredients for the cooked spelt

50g spelt

10ml olive oil

300ml vegetable stock

Method

Three days before you want to cook the frumenty, prepare the pickled Buddha’s hand fruit as follows.

To make the pickled Buddha’s hand fruit

Heat the water and Chardonnay vinegar in a pan. Add the sugar and stir until completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Cut off all the “fingers” on the Buddha’s hand fruit, using a knife, then slice into 1.5mm-thick slices, using a mandolin. Slice across the “fingers” to create circular slices. Using an electric slicer, cut the base section of the Buddha’s hand fruit into 1.5mm slices. Put the sliced “fingers” and base section into a jar or container, cover with the pickling liquid and place in the fridge for at least three days. As long as the fruit is submerged in the pickling liquid and is refrigerated it will last up to three weeks.

24 hours before you want to cook the frumenty, prepare the pickled dulse.

To make the pickled dulse

Heat the water, Chardonnay vinegar and white soy in a pan. Add the sugar and salt and stir until dissolved. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Wash the dried dulse thoroughly in cold running water to remove any sand. Cover with water and leave to soak for 10 minutes. Drain well then add to the cooled pickling liquid. Place in an airtight container in the fridge for 24 hours before using.

At least two hours before cooking the frumenty, prepare the vegetable stock and cook the spelt.

To make the vegetable stock

Peel and prepare the vegetables. Heat the olive oil in a large pan, add all the vegetables and sweat for five minutes without allowing to colour. Add the bay, thyme and water and bring to the boil. Skim off any froth or impurities that rise to the surface and gently simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the parsley and allow to infuse for 20 minutes. Pass the stock through a fine sieve and discard the vegetables. Remove any fat from the surface of the stock. Refrigerate until required.

To cook the spelt

Heat the olive oil in a pan and lightly toast the spelt, stirring continuously until light brown in colour. Add 300ml of the vegetable stock and simmer until the spelt is tender but still has a little bite and almost all the stock has been absorbed. Pour the spelt out on to a tray and cool in the fridge and reserve.

Ten minutes before you wish to eat, start assembling the frumenty.

Season the scallops with salt and pepper. Heat a frying pan until very hot then fry the scallops on either side until light, golden brown. Remove and set aside in a warm place to complete cooking and rest. Heat a generous splash of olive oil in a large frying pan with a lid. When the oil is smoking add the clams and cook on a high heat for a minute. Add the chopped garlic and cook for a further minute then add the vegetable stock, cooked spelt and sea purslane. Cover with a lid and bring to a simmer. Once simmering remove the lid then add the samphire, sea beet leaves, Buddha’s hand rings and most but not all of the pickled dulse. Cook for another minute until the clams open then add the chopped coriander and both pickle liquids. Divide the broth and clam mixture between two large bowls, making sure the scallops are clearly visible. Place a couple of larger pieces of pickled dulse and large pieces of Buddha’s hand fruit in and around the dish and then serve.

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