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Butter'd Grains

August 23, 2010

Fast food is nothing new. Throughout the ages people have wanted something quick, filling and easy. Firmity or frumenty was eaten as a sort of porridge in medieval times, with additional spices or fruit according to the consumer’s status and pocket. In the eighteenth century this was still available on the streets of London. The itinerant vendors could preboil a large pot of the whole grains, usually pearl barley, the night before in their home. Then carrying a portable brazier or chaffing dish it was an easy job to reheat and serve individual portions, adding the butter, sugar and nutmeg on the spot.

According to Hannah Glasse’s ‘The Art of  Cookery made plain and easy’, the rough proportions needed are as follows: 1 ounce each of pearl barley and butter to a pint of water. The barley is best washed first in cold water, then brought to the boil in the pint of liquid and gently simmered for anything between 30 and 45 minutes. This allows the grain to swell and soften and absorb the water. Any remaining excess liquid should be drained off and the grains gently re heated with the butter, a large serving spoonful  of sugar (which in the eighteenth century would have to be chipped off a sugar cone and pounded first), and a generous grating of fresh nutmeg. Keep stirring whilst reheating to prevent the butter and sugar caramelising and the grains sticking and burning on the bottom of the pan.

The length of time needed for boiling the grain can vary, but it’s fairly obvious when they have swollen and softened sufficiently. I was sceptical about this tasting good enough to eat alone, but prepared it for a museum display and tried it out for flavour. Granted I do like the taste of nutmeg, but the finished dish was a revelation. The combination of the butter and sugar made the barley rich and smooth  in the mouth and the nutmeg offset the richness and added a definitive depth of flavour. Every one who tried it found it very ‘moreish’ both warm and cold (though the buttery texture works best when it’s still warm). As a note of warning, nutmeg can apparently become addictive when liberally used over a long time, and having eaten this dish I  can see why.

From → Food, georgian food

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