Some words are just made to be said out loud. Flibbertigibbet is one; Woolloomooloo is another. But thanks to its refined, playful simplicity, we’re rather a fan of the word ‘flummery’. And no, it is not a made-up word, sprung from the foraging minds of Roald Dahl or J. K. Rowling. But it could have a place at Willy Wonka’s factory or indeed on the table at the Great Hall of Hogwarts Castle. For those uninitiated, flummery is a dessert.
It’s a dessert of many names, flummery being but one. In Wales it’s known as ‘llymru’, in Scotland as ‘sowens’ and in England it was once known as ‘wash-brew’.
It’s also a dessert of many variations, and it has a long history shaped by the needs of those who ate it. Back in 17th–19th century Britain, it was a dish of thriftiness – the oft-discarded husks from oats were soaked in water to release their starch, and the resultant fluid then heated until thick. Sometimes the liquid was left to ferment first, making it like an early version of kombucha, with hugely beneficial probiotic qualities. It was then served like a porridge – or dare we say, gruel – with milk if you were lucky, and was well-known as a convalescence food.
Its thick, starch-rich consistency was the core element of note in the dish, and so by the 19th century gelatine or isinglass (gelatine derived from the dried swim bladders of fish) was added to wheaten or oat-based liquids to thicken them even further. Milk or cream replaced water, and something closer to blancmange was born.
It wasn’t until the prudent times of the Second World War, though, that flummery took on an altogether fluffier form. As the price of fresh dairy shot up, cooks were searching for desserts that could imitate the creamy possets they’d come to love, but without costing them a week’s rations for the privilege. And so became the flummery you are likely to be most familiar with: a blend of half-set jelly and whipped, evaporated milk. Sort of like an aerated blancmange or poor man’s panna cotta, it grew in popularity and became a popular dessert, especially in Australia, in the 1970s.
We don’t see flummery much any more, which I reckon is a darn shame. When we do see it today, the recipes don’t have much in common with what it once was. But let’s be honest, that might be for the best – sour porridge isn’t going to suit most palates. And as for trying to find a bag of oat husks to make it with historical precision, good luck.
We still see the World War Two version, often called Jelly Whip nowadays, and recipes now include whipped egg whites and/or cream to lighten the dish even further, to cloud-like heights. Right now, we’re in love with this version, piquant with apples and angelically light. Really anything, such as a fool or syllabub, could pass for flummery and nobody would bat an eyelid. But that’s probably because they’ve never heard of it.
Bring back flummery! If only so that we can once again say the word at dinner parties, and enjoy the inquisitive reactions of our guests. Dear reader, spread the word.