The trusser and his family proceeded on their way, and soon entered the Fair Field … they looked around for a refreshment tent among the many which dotted the down. Two, which stood nearest to them in the ochreous haze of expiring sunlight, seemed almost equally inviting. One was formed of new milk-hued canvas, and bore red flags on the summit; it announced ‘Good Home-brewed Beer, Ale and Cyder.’ The other was less new; a little iron stove-pipe came out of it at the back, and in front appeared the placard, ‘Good Furmity Sold Hear’. (Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge‘)
When I was growing up in Barnstaple in North Devon one of the highlights – if not the highlight – of the year was the September fair. Said to be the oldest in the country, its origins date back to before the Norman Conquest. Whilst its original purpose was trade, by the time I started going to it in the late 1970s it was primarily a funfair providing me with my first experiences of bumper cars, ghost trains and waltzers – and terrifying me with the siren of the cage, reputed to be the scariest ride (and, needless to say, one I never dared try out).
As well as the rides, the Barnstaple fair also introduced me to certain fairground foods: this was where I first tried toffee-apples (which I liked) and candy-floss (which I did not).
Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge opens with Michael Henchard – the subsequent mayor of the title – and his wife and baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, arriving at a fair in the Wessex village of Weydon-Priors. Henchard is in search of employment, and lodgings for his family, and the tension between the couple is revealed both by their initially walking together ‘in perfect silence‘ and then their disagreement about which of the two tents above to enter. Henchard ‘inclined to the former tent‘ – the one selling ‘Beer, Ale and Cyder‘ – whilst his wife inclines to the other, with its misspelt sign: ‘ “No – no – the other one,” said the woman. “I always like furmity; and so does Elizabeth-Jane; and so will you.”‘
Of course Henchard’s liking for alcohol will prove his undoing later that evening when in a state of inebriation he puts his wife and daughter up for sale. They are ‘bought’ by a sailor, and Henchard will spend the rest of the novel lamenting his behaviour – he gives up alcohol for a number of years as penance – and, in typical Hardy-fashion, being beaten back by Fate whenever he attempts to take a step forward and remedy his wrong-doing.
I had never heard of furmity – more commonly called frumenty – until I read Hardy’s novel. Like the fairs of England, it has a long history with its origins dating back to the Middle Ages. The narrator calls it ‘antiquated slop‘ and lists its ingredients as ‘grain, flour, milk, raisins, currants, and what not.’ I like the reference to ‘what not’ which gives scope to add whatever you want: for Henchard that seems to be the rum that the cook – ‘A haggish creature of about fifty‘ – pours in at his bidding:
He winked to her, and passed up his basin in reply to her nod; when she took a bottle from under the table, slily measured out a quantity of its contents, and tipped the same into the man’s furmity. The liquor poured in was rum. The man as slily sent back money in payment.
He found the concoction, thus strongly laced, much more to his satisfaction than it had been in its natural state.
But Henchard will proceed to consume four bowls of furmity, all laced with rum, with increasingly severe effects on his ability to think and act rationally and culminating in his final disastrous action. So, with no desire to sell off any of my loved ones, I have not included alcohol in my recipe for furmity – if you feel differently, give it a try!
Much to my surprise – because the ingredients did not fill me with excitement – I absolutely love this. I think it’s best eaten for breakfast – it’s like a form of porridge – and you can make a large portion, put it in the fridge and then reheat it in a saucepan with a small amount of additional milk over a low heat, the next day.
WIFE-SELLING FURMITY (Serves 4)
(for the almond milk)
200ml boiling water
100g ground almonds
200g bulgur wheat
30g dried cherries
2 large egg yolks, beaten
Pinch of saffron (optional)
50g light brown sugar
Put the bulgur wheat, water and half the milk in a pan over a moderate heat. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes. Cover and leave to stand for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the almond milk by pouring the boiling water over the almonds. Leave to stand for 15 minutes, then pass through a sieve, discarding the soaked almonds.
Add the rest of the milk, the almond milk and the dried fruit to the bulgur wheat mixture. Bring to the boil for about 30 seconds. Then lower the heat and add the egg yolks and saffron – if using – stirring to mix. Finally stir in the sugar and remove from the heat. Leave to stand for a few minutes before serving.