Today I give you, as promised, some fascinating flummery factoids. Flummery is old-fashioned, there is no question about that, and it is probably fair to say that ‘no-one’ makes it anymore. A modern ‘some-one’ wanting to make flummery would first have to decide which historical interpretation they were interested in – which means, in essence, how far back in history they wanted to go.
The original flummery was a kind of oatmeal broth or porridge. In medieval times oats were a staple (especially for the poorer folk) of the cooler northern parts of the British Isles. Flummery was an example of the absolute waste-not, want-not ethic of the time. It could be made thriftily by soaking the ‘skins’ (the ‘flummery hulls’) and dust remaining from the oatmeal seeds, the liquid then being strained off and boiled until it was thick. In some areas this liquid was fermented until it was slightly sour, as in the Scottish dish sowens. Depending on the circumstances it was eaten with milk, or honey, or ale, or wine.
This basic dish was known by many regional names. It seems that it was the Welsh version, called llymru (the double ‘ll’ having a sort of ‘th’ sound, I believe) that eventually gave us the word ‘flummery’. In England it was sometimes called ‘wash-brew’ – no doubt because the greyish thickish liquid resembled dishwater in appearance.
Flummery was from early times considered healthy and strengthening, and the essential blandness and smoothness of the basic recipe contributed to its reputation as a suitable food for invalids right up until the twentieth century. By this time, the idea of flummery was interpreted very widely, so that sometimes the recipes seem more like custard, or jelly, or cornstarch pudding, or blancmange. As the centuries wore on, it was made with basic ingredients other than oatmeal. The congealed or gelatinous texture was sometimes achieved with hartshorn, or isinglass, or gelatine, and the dish could be enriched with cream, eggs, or wine, or fruit could be added. From a simple but sustaining staple, by the twentieth century flummery had become a sweet dessert treat.
I give you a recipe for a delicious, alcohol-heavy, Victorian dessert version of flummery, from Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (c1877).
Pare the rind of a lemon very thin, and infuse it in a pint of water with half a pound of sugar. Set it on the fire until the sugar is dissolved, and the syrup well-flavoured with the lemon-rind. Simmer a few minutes, and then add two ounces of isinglass to the syrup, the strained juice of four lemons, a pint of sherry, and the yolks of eight eggs. Strain the mixture, put it into a jug, set the jug in a saucepan of boiling water, and stir until the flummery thickens. Take it out of the water, allow it to cool, and then pour it into moulds. A wine-glass ful of brandy may be added to the syrup, but in that case just so much less water will be required. Sufficient for a quart mould.
Quotation for the Day.
This word flummery, you must know, Sir, means at London, flattery, and compliment.
Lady Luxborough, letter of Nov. 29, 1775.