porpoise porridge

Porpoise porridge has been minorly in the news recently, an event not likely to happen again anytime soon. It’s in the news because it’s a recipe which appears in The Forme of Cury(e), one of the earliest cookbooks written in English, specifically Middle English. It was written by a chef working in the court of Richard II. It’s a well-known cookbook as a result.

It was from this book that most of the recipes came when one of my departments held a medieval feast. It was from this book that all the recipes came when I took a medieval cooking workshop several summers ago. Editions of it have been available online and offline for years. What’s new is that this summer, back in June, the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester put a digitized version of the original manuscript online.

The porpoise has been monopolizing headlines. The BBC announced the release of the digitized manuscript with “14th Century cookbook goes online. Recipes for porpoise, pike and blancmange from a 14th Century cookbook have been made available online by the John Rylands University of Manchester library.”

This week, the two other major UK newspapers caught up with this year’s events, inspired by the press release for a tasting session based on the cookbook, held at the library’s café. On the 2nd, The Telegraph’s article was entitled “How to cook porpoise, and other 600-year-old recipies” [sic]. The Daily Mail, on the 4th, used the headline “Porpoise porridge, Sire? World’s oldest recipe book reveals dishes English kings enjoyed 600 years ago”. (Larsdatter’s Medieval Material Culture Blog comments on the factual error in the latter headline.)

All the these articles leave out their centerpiece, however. How does one make “furmente with porpeys”? The book offers two recipes. (There’s also a recipe for “porpeys in broth” but “porpoise soup” doesn’t have the same alliterative appeal.) I’ll give you the more detailed of the two.

A furment (“frumenty” in modern English) is a kind of porridge, made from wheat. It comes from the Latin, frumentum (wheat), unlike porridge which comes from the Latin word for “leek”, porrum.

Take clene whete and bete it small in a morter and fanne out clene the doust, þenne waisthe it clene and boile it tyl it be tendre and broun. þanne take the secunde mylk of Almaundes & do þerto. boile hem togidur til it be stondyng, and take þe first mylke & alye it up wiþ a penne. take up the porpays out of the Furmente & leshe hem in a dishe with hoot water. & do safroun to þe furmente. and if the porpays be salt. seeþ it by hym self, and serue it forth.

In modern English, slightly adapted: “Take clean wheat and crush it into powder in a mortar. Aerate it to clean out the dust, then wash it clean and boil it until it’s tender and brown. Then take the second milk of Almonds and do the same thing. [i.e. Powder, aerate, boil?] Boil them together until they are thick. Then take the first milk and mix it up with a feather. Take the porpoise out of the frumenty and leave it in a dish with hot water. Add saffron to the frumenty. And if the porpoise be salted, set it by itself and serve it forth.” The recipe, like every other in The Forme of Cury, is non-specific about quantities and cooking times.

In practice, the porpoise – from Latin “pig-fish” (porcus + piscis), via Old French – is a group of protected species, and thus illegal to hunt and eat in many places, including the US and the UK, so the recipe is not actually likely to be of much use to you.

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*© S. Worthen 2009