Fuelling the stars of Formula 1 as well as Fielders, there’s more to porridge than oats and water, finds Rosie MacDonald
Once considered as grey gruel, porridge has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past century, finds Rosie MacDonald.
Take a look at Philippa Davis’ wonderful chocolate and orange fruit tea cake which is simple to make and is also an excellent treat for when sustenance is required.
Or try Philippa Davis’ rich and creamy partridge stroganoff with buttered pappardelle pasta, perfect for when comfort food is required.
PORRIDGE: THE PERFECT FUEL FOR A DAY IN THE FIELD
The fortunes of porridge have changed dramatically over the past century. Once the diet of workhouse children and the poor, the grey gruel that had Oliver Twist begging, “Please, sir, I want some more” has become a superfood celebrated for its health benefits around the world.
A side-effect of this has been to propel oat production from a field-rotation staple to agricultural stardom, with more than a million tons being produced in the UK in 2020. “Oats are a British farming success,” says John Latham, chairman of Camgrain. “We have recently come back to growing them and now plant over 800 acres a year.”
This remarkable transformation would have surprised Dr Samuel Johnson, who once defined oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people” (prompting his biographer, James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck, to quip: “Well, maybe that’s why in England you have better horses, and in Scotland we have better men”).
Of course, porridge was not always made of oats. It’s a generic name given to pappy food made of cereal or pulses steeped in hot water or milk: think of pease porridge of nursery-rhyme fame, made with yellow split peas and spices; flour porridge, made with flour and salt; or hominy porridge, made with dried maize kernels, cooked slowly and eaten with molasses. But when it’s not qualified in any way, it’s usually oatmeal porridge – and quintessentially Scottish.
Although it has caught up now, England has historically been a little slow to embrace the benefits of porridge – which are numerous and not only of the nutritional kind. Cottages across Scotland often had chests or dressers featuring a special ‘porridge drawer’, a tin-lined drawer into which porridge, freshly made with water and seasoned with salt, would have been poured. Story has it that a newborn baby would be wrapped and placed in the drawer above the one storing the porridge, so that the heat, rising, would keep it warm as it slept. The setting porridge would then feed the family for the rest of the week, sliced and wrapped for those working far from home (those interested in seeing a porridge drawer should head to geologist and writer Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage & Museum in Cromarty).
As befits an ancient food – porridge has been doing the rounds since about 2000BC – there are many rituals associated with its preparation, chief among all that, for good luck, it should only ever be stirred clockwise with your right hand (anti-clockwise and left-handed stirring was said to bring bad luck). Perhaps Iain Macdonald, the Earl of Ross and rebel Lord of the Isles, forgot to stick to that rule, because things went spectacularly wrong for him in 1475.
Having angered the Scottish king, he was captured by the Earl of Atholl, who had lured him to his favourite watering hole, which had been filled with a mixture of oats, whisky and honey. Enchanted by such a delicious concoction, Macdonald and his companions indulged for too long and were captured by Atholl’s troops. That’s how the recipe for Atholl Brose came into being – it is still drunk at Hogmanay and Burn’s Night celebrations. In the 19th-century, the brew was regularly used as a cure for a common cold and, whether effective or not, it was always enjoyable. And Scottish porridge doesn’t only star in folklore; it has also captured the imagination of poets and playwrights, leading Spike Milligan to write: “Why is there no monument / To Porridge in our land?”
WORLD PORRIDGE DAY
Scotland’s porridge tradition is at its finest on World Porridge Day (which was on 10 October this year), when the Golden Spurtle competition takes place in Carrbridge, in the Highlands (providing the perfect opportunity for those of us south of the border to get involved, too). The Golden Spurtle has been running since 1994 and chatting to Charlie Miller, the current chairman, makes me want to jump in the car and head north. “The competition started as a way to improve tourism and get Carrbridge on the map, and we have never looked back,” he says. “Each year, we try and add something new. In my first year, I added a junior competition, known as the Silver Spurtle, for children up to 16.”
The Golden Spurtle is regularly over-subscribed and lucky entrants are literally drawn from a committee member’s hat, with the only exception that the previous year’s winner is guaranteed a place. In 2020, the palm for the best porridge speciality went to Chris Young with his Crunch sa Bheul, a Scottish take on the French croquembouche, made with oatmeal in 30 minutes using two gas hobs, according to the competition rules.
Each contestant makes three bowls of their porridge, one for each judge. “At this point, everything is anonymous,” explains Miller. “There is only one woman in the whole set-up who knows who has got what points; even the judges don’t know whose porridge they are tasting. She has got a method – we don’t ask what it is, but it’s her job to make sure anonymity is preserved.” She’s fierce enough to put off anyone who might try and subvert her system. “She’s definitely not one to be argued with,” says Miller, a twinkle in his voice.
Every entrant, whether a winner or not, is presented with an engraved wooden spurtle, a Scottish kitchen tool similar to a spatula, which dates back to the 15th century. The chairman makes more than 400 each year for the competition and a couple of years ago he had a request from Formula 1 racing driver Valtteri Bottas for his own engraved spurtle. Bottas is known for his porridge obsession and the hope is he might be persuaded to be the celebrity judge for a year. One of his favourite recipes, which he demonstrates on Twitter, is a traditional porridge to which he adds chia seeds during the cooking process, then, once in the bowl, a large spoonful of quark, fresh berries, coconut flakes, a helping of nuts, a good spoonful of almond butter and a drizzle of maple syrup.
Of course, porridge for a full day’s shooting might require something more substantial, such as a baked recipe – a hot dish straight from the oven, enriched either with carrots and sultanas, banana or frozen berries, and topped with pecans, almonds, sunflower seeds and honey. But if the choice of toppings can elicit passion among devotees, the cooking of porridge can become outright contentious, akin to arguments about the best way to boil an egg. For a creamy texture, you should cook your oats slowly, either with milk or milk substitutes, or, like many Scots, such as Charlie Miller, do, simply with water, adding a pinch of sea salt when cooked. (The addition of salt gives the porridge depth and enhances the flavour of any toppings.) And there’s a porridge recipe for every palate: a friend who can’t abide the traditional version, having been scared by his mother’s gruel as a child, was persuaded to try it cold, fried in a little spiced butter, topped with a rasher of bacon and a drizzle of maple syrup. He is now a convert.
But perhaps the best way to have porridge comes from a Golden Spurtle tradition: “In a normal year, we have hundreds of people turning up,” explains Miller. “The day starts early and we are piped up through the village to the hall. A committee member is a whisky expert and toasts the porridge. Everyone present is given a glass and they certainly enjoy that libation.” I think many of us would agree that porridge and whisky is a winning combination.