An ancient dish which has moved with the times – #worldporridgeday

IMG_0247

Oats have been cultivated since at least 2000 bce, they are sturdy crops, keep well, are filling, full of minerals and have saved many a country from starving to death in harder times. They have been used in soups, stews, breads, oatcakes, gruel and most famously in Porridge.

Following on from my previous article about my family’s porridge cooking tradition, I thought it would be rather interesting to explore Porridge a little more thoroughly and today’s #worldporridgeday offers just that opportunity.

There is no doubt that porridge is ‘cool’, on trend, fashionable. There is not a breakfast menu in Britain without some homage to the porridge. From the organic, whole oat, slow cooked variety served with jugs of cream and a ‘choice of toppings’ to the chia seed filled, coconut oil infused, almond milk, vegan porridges of the ‘healthy-eating’ establishments. Yes, it’s versatile, and it is surprisingly good at accepting change. I am a porridge traditionalist, I make mine with water, oats and pinch of salt. I usually douse it in thick cream and maybe a spoon or two of honey or maple syrup. I have experimented with the more extreme versions (some without oats in at all) but I am most content with the original approach, although my Scottish ancestors are probably looking down at me and cursing my sweetening their national dish!

Last week, a Swedish woman, Ellinor Persson, took the title in the 24th Annual Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship. The competition guide lines are very strict and the base ingredients remain the same – oatmeal, salt and water. Always a favourite in Nordic countries, Porridge has recently been highlighted as part the world’s healthiest breakfast alongside rye bread, the Icelandic dairy product Skyr, meats and cheeses. Every country has their own traditional additions, in Scandanavia Cloudberry Jam, apples and cinnamon are very popular. Porridge was the perfect food to counteract the effects of the  harsh, freezing northern winters.

Porridge was such an important part of Scottish culture that ‘porridge pots’ were often bequeathed in wills, one such will recording that ‘my second best porridge pot shall go to my youngest daughter’. The word ‘porridge’ most likely evolved sometime in the 16th century from the word ‘pottage’ which was a thick oat-thickened soup found in every kitchen up and down the country. Although oatmeal is used traditionally most of us now favour rolled oats which cook more quickly and have a more creamy texture. The sheer variety of porridge in supermarkets is a testimony to its current popularity, from instant ‘add hot water’ pots to fruited, spelt, apple and spice…..in fact locating the plain oats takes a bit of doing, and I’ve even found Oatmeal displayed within the baking section, far removed from its cereal chums! There are the pseudo-porridges like Ready Brek, loved by kids, but, although fortified with vitamins and minerals, it is actually a pale imitation of the real stuff. There are ready weighed, microwavable sachets which I have used in the past for pure convenience and this week I’ve seen a ‘porridge bar’ launched, apparently containing the same amount of oats as a bowl of porridge (although in my day that was called a Flapjack).

So, what is the future of porridge, and how much more can one dish be messed about with? There are some truly extreme versions out there, Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Snail Porridge’ being no exception. The one thing that remains constant (inflation aside) is its cost and place in society. It is a pan-class dish, one which has graced the tables of kings, lords, farmers, miners, factory workers, even those in the workhouse; and it is a cheap dish to make at home, even organic oats are not overly expensive, although when breakfasting out, I have seen some eye-watering prices attached to a bowl of this, most stalwart of cereals.

Some of  my personal favourites are  Rude Health’s Organic Scottish Oatmeal or Mornflake Organic Oats  , however, my grandmother always used Scott’s with that dashing kilted, wholesome (obviously porridge eating) Scotsman on the front! I will certainly be continuing my porridge ritual and maybe, just maybe, a recipe will surface which will encourage me to stray out of my Porridge safety zone for good!


Digging for Ancestral Roots in our Cookery…..?

I think that most of us were probably taught to cook by family members; whether Mum, Dad, Grandparents, Great-Grandparents or the more extended family. IIMG_4936 learnt a lot from my Grandmothers; though each was very different in their approach to cookery. One was very much a bake-from-scratch cook; still alive today (at 106) she taught me bread making, jam making and gravy making; she learnt all that from her mother who was born in the late 19th century. Grandma’s rubbed-in cakes and Welsh bake-stones have weathered the years and are still regularly baked in my kitchen at home. Grandma was very much a wartime wife; she embraced rationing, skinned rabbits and ‘made do and mended’.

My other Grandmother, Nan, born in 1922 and sadly no longer with us, was a classic 1950’s housewife; she enjoyed convenience, loved M & S and, as she got older, rarely cooked at all, but when I was a child she would make choux pastry Chocolate Eclairs (which I’ve always considered rather complicated) and Coconut Pyramids (from the eponymous Marguerite Patten); her Beef Stew with Dumplings was always served on a plate rather than in a bowl and the trifles which adorned the birthday table were always from a packet. However, there was something she always made from scratch and which we all found rather amusing – Porridge. At home, porridge was a thick and creamy affair, adorned with honey or syrup or sultanas, it was thick and unctuous. My Nan’s on the other hand was solid, a greying cloddy mass made with half water and half milk then surrounded by another pool of cold milk. It stood like an iceberg, its undercarriage swamped and its head lightly adorned with sugar. It tasted fine, but it looked….well ‘different’! IMG_7474

It was only after doing a bit of research and talking with my Nan that I realised why this porridge was ‘different’ – and it was all down to her ancestry. My Nan made porridge that way because she had learnt it from her mother, and her mother from her mother – and that lady (all the way back in the mid-19th century) was called Florence MacDonald and was born a little way outside Inverness in 1858. Having looked into the Scottish porridge tradition I discovered that it is served, very thick, in bowls and alongside is placed a communal bowl of cream. The horn spoon goes into the porridge (which is served savoury or sweet) and then dunked in the cream. The leftover porridge was then tipped into a ‘porridge draw’ and spread about so as to set firm; this

IMG_1821was carried by crofters and workers to eat during their lunch break as it travelled more easily than oatcakes which tended to crumble.

Although, it’s likely that this was how Florence cooked and served her porridge, a gentle evolution has obviously occurred – an amalgamation of two bowls into one and the result being my Nan’s ‘different’ porridge. Having discovered this I do wonder whether I should make my porridge that bit thicker and carry on the tradition….who knows how far back it goes? I’m sure if we looked about us, we could

DSCN0279.JPG

 find dozens of hacks and recipes which travel deep into our family history, not all of us are lucky enough to have a family recipe notebook added to and stained and use, to carry these recipes, we just have our memories and these memories should be treasured and handed down to the next generation. In a gesture towards my heritage I do always stir my porridge with a Spurtle (the traditional carved stick-like porridge stirrer) and I only stir clockwise, superstition or tradition; you decide.