Porridge: a stirring story

PORRIDGE has not always had a good press. True, 'porridge oats' appear in the Ian Dury song, 'Reasons to be Cheerful', just after 'Fanny Smith and Willy' and 'Being rather silly'. But more often - not just in Oliver Twist in which "each boy had one porringer, and no more - except on occasions of great public rejoicing" - it has been viewed as a watery symbol of deprivation.

The most pungent and patronising of these references is Dr Johnson's observation that oats were "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people".

Porridge, as Ronnie Barker understood, is a shorthand for punishment, and the culinary poverty of the Scots. These days, this attitude has hardened somewhat. If you listen for long enough in the wrong places, you may even hear the term "porridge wogs" used to express a general resentment about Scottishness.

Culinary racism is a long-standing tradition, though it is usually expressed more gently. Cosmo Gordon Lang (Archbishop of Canterbury 1928-42) once insulted an Edinburgh audience by flattering them with the observation: "If you take the shorter catechism, the psalms, and Sir Walter Scott, and mix them with porridge, you will breed a great race of men."

George Orwell, whose dislike of Scottish things was not aided by his tubercular years on Jura, opened his novel about the dreariness of life among the lower middle classes, Keep The Aspidistra Flying, by ruminating on the origins of the name of his hero, Gordon Comstock. "The 'Gordon' part of it was Scotch, of course. The prevalence of such names nowadays is merely a part of the Scotchification of England that has been going on these last 50 years. 'Gordon', 'Colin', 'Malcolm', 'Donald' - these are the gifts of Scotland to the world, along with golf, whisky, porridge, and the works of Barrie and Stevenson."

The ambiguity of that compliment is made plain in Orwell's autobiographical writing, where he reflected on the horror of the regime in his English prep school, focusing on one "filthy detail"; the pewter bowls from which the daily dose was administered. "They had overhanging rims, and under the rims there were accumulations of sour porridge, which could be flaked off in long strips. The porridge itself, too, contained more lumps, hairs and more unexplained black things than one would have thought possible, unless someone were putting them there on purpose."

Today, though, porridge has undergone something of a makeover. Its current fashionability is due in large part to the popularity of the GI Diet, which promotes foods with a low glycaemic index. It is also a good source of complex carbohydrates, which release energy slowly into the bloodstream. The oats are wholegrain. They have the natural goodness that is absent from processed cereals, and they can lower cholesterol and reduce constipation.

The oats can also reduce the risk of diabetes and, apparently, aid the libido. Among the other benefits claimed for porridge are: the ability to quell hangovers, heal the skin, pep up the immune system, tackle obesity, counter depression, reduce blood pressure and aid pregnancy.

Scotland on Sunday food writer Sue Lawrence - a judge in the annual Golden Spurtle global porridge-making contest - says it is this growing awareness of the health benefits that have led to the growing fashionability of porridge, along with a growing appreciation of "peasant" foods.

"We're realising that it's such a healthy food, and why on earth did we give it up in the first place? Everybody always used to eat porridge in Scotland and then we went onto the horrible sugary cereals. Porridge is part of our heritage and at last we're realising that we should get back to the way we used to eat."

The cook Clarissa Dickson Wright has personal experience of the health-giving properties of porridge. "I remember when I had adhesions on a scar that I'd had after an operation, and the specialist, a Scotsman, said to me: 'Eat porridge'. At that point I'd rather stopped eating porridge every day, and within two or three weeks the adhesions had stopped sticking to themselves. I then got terribly obsessed."

Before becoming our national dish, porridge has a mottled history. The Roman armies were fed on oatmeal, and 18th-century recipe books contain instructions for an attractively-named "Water Gruel". Guthrie Hutton's book, A Bowl of Porridge, notes the existence of an anti-Jacobite song in which Bonnie Prince Charlie's troops were derided for cooking oatmeal in cold water.

The sense that porridge is a food of the poor is underlined in Stevenson's Kidnapped, where the miserly Ebenezer Balfour chows down on a bowl of oats, despite his huge wealth, exclaiming: "They're fine, halesome food - they're grand food, parritch."

Most cooks agreed on the recipe of this fine, wholesome food. The current holder of the prestigious Golden Spurtle, Lynn Benge of the Pines Country House at Duthil, Carrbridge, recommends one cup oatmeal, 3 equal cups of water, 1 cup milk, oz knob of butter, and teaspoon of salt. Traditionalists may balk at the butter, and some will prefer to use water not milk, but all are agreed on the method: add the oats to the pan, add the liquid, and stir. "Bring to the boil, add butter and salt, keep stirring. Stir until thickens."

The key, says Benge, a Yorkshirewoman with over 30 years Scottish residency, is the stirring. "You have to keep stirring all the time. Otherwise you do get lumps in it."

Lawrence says the salt is the crucial ingredient - a pinch, added near the end of the process, so as not to inhibit the swelling of the oats. "A pinch per pot. You can always add a little more at the end. It's best to start off under-salting."

She also recommends proper oatmeal. "Porridge oats are fine, and they can be quicker, but it just improves the texture - it gives it a nice, rough, nutty texture."

There are, of course, other considerations. "The judges keep telling me you must always stir to the right," says Benge. "If you stir to the left, you evoke the devil. You don't want that in your porridge."

Dickson Wright's recipe is more spartan. "For proper porridge, you soak your pinhead oatmeal overnight and boil it up in the morning and cook it quickly and stir it with your spurtle and stir it with a bit of salt," she says.

"I don't actually go as far as having the porridge in one bowl and the milk in the other, which is what my father used to do ... And then you eat it.

"It's totally simple to make. If you buy medium-ground oatmeal then you don't even have to soak it. If you buy porridge oats it only takes 10 minutes to cook."

To serve, Lawrence suggests a sprinkling of wheatgerm on top, and a moat of milk. "Never milk on top."

The spurtle - a wooden stirring stick - is favoured over a wooden spoon because it breaks down lumps. There have been some suggestions that it was Graham Kerr, television's Galloping Gourmet, who popularised the spurtle, but Lawrence is adamant that this is not so. "My parents were born in 1923, and they were brought up with that thing called a spurtle. One of my grandfathers called it a theevil, and that's in the Angus area. But the spurtle has been around for ever."

Of course, the growing popularity of porridge has led to some faddish deviations from the correct path. The Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal built a reputation on snail porridge, though it has only scant similarity to the breakfast dish we know. At the Golden Spurtle Awards, Benge offered speciality porridge with raspberries, apples, vanilla vodka and cream. "That is really nice. If you like the Mullerice pots, it's very similar to that."

She recommends it as a dessert "You could have it as a breakfast if you wanted to really start the day." Another prize winner did something with caramelised marshmallows. But tradition has some peculiar departures from the norm, not least in St Kilda. "They used to boil a puffin in their porridge," says Lawrence. "They used to sometimes roast the birds, but for their morning porridge, a puffin was very often boiled in the oats. They had no salt on the island. These seabirds were inherently very salty. So that would be a flavouring of the sea, because porridge always needs a little bit of salt to bring out the flavour."

Traditionalists may also recall that many Scots households used to store porridge in a kitchen drawer and serve it cold by the slice. "My grandfather was a doctor," recalls Dickson Wright. "He had a practice in Govan. All the people in the tenements did it. My father said that when he went with his father round the tenements, they all had porridge in a drawer, and they said: 'Will you take some porridge?' because they didn't have much else. If my grandfather said yes, they'd pour boiling water over it and reconstitute it. Fuel was very hard to come by and so you'd cook up a big batch once a week and then pour it into the drawer, and it set, and then you could either eat it cold as a piece or you re-constituted it."

(But be warned: urban legend has it that the last recorded case of scurvy in Scotland was a student who spent all his money on extra-curricular activities and fell back on the porridge-in-drawer method of eating cheaply.)

The modern equivalent, recommended by Lawrence, is to make a weekly batch and freeze it in bags to be microwaved each morning. This may be practical, but the introduction of the microwave removes some of the poetry from our national dish. It is better, surely, to think of porridge as it appears in the work of the poet and performer Ivor Cutler, whose autobiographical tales make the Broons appear decadent.

In Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Volume 2, Episode 6, Cutler tells how his grandfather used to enrich the diet of his offspring by feeding them herring, rolled in a deep batter of leftover porridge, cooked on a "a hot griddle athwart the coal fire". After exactly 25 minutes, "the porridge cracked, and juice steamed through with a glad 'fizz'. We ate the batter first, to take the edge off our appetites, so that we could eat the herring with respect; which we did, including the bones.

"After supper, assuming the herring to have worked, we were asked questions. In Latin, Greek and Hebrew, we had to know the principle parts of verbs. In geography, the five main glove manufacturing towns in the Midlands. And in history, the development of Glasgow's sewage system.

"There's nothing quite like a Scotch education. One is left with an irreparable debt. My head is full of irregular verbs still."

The snack in a pot that leaves a sandwich looking limp

MOST hungry lunchers, I suspect, would rather opt for a sandwich and a packet of crisps than a pot of warm, fresh porridge - however well prepared, attractively presented and nutritious it may be.

But three college graduates in Edinburgh believe they have found the successor to Britain's sandwich and burger-based fast food industry in one of the oldest meals of them all.

Last week Scotland opened its first permanent porridge bar.

"It's fun, it's new and it's Scottish," chirped its founders Anthony Stone, Sean McNeill and Bob Arnott.

So, hungry and in need of lunch I headed down to Stoats porridge bar on the north side of Edinburgh's Meadows to put their claims to the test.

The first thing the approaching customer notices is not the porridge itself but the double takes of pedestrians. For what looks like a hot dog stand is in fact an oatmeal emporium offering the fast food fan a choice of eight different recipes. From the traditional Stoater, literally salted porridge, to Cranachan, a blend of raspberries, toasted oats and cream.

"It's an indulgence," says Stone. "A healthy indulgence."

The portions range in price from 2.20 to 3.50, and I pass over the chunky orange marmalade, pear, sultana and crushed almonds, white chocolate and roasted hazelnut, and opt for the Cranachan.

"I had the idea when I was travelling a lot between Cardiff and Edinburgh," says Stone as he prepares my cardboard pot of porridge.

"I was flying a great deal and eating on the go virtually all the time. What I noticed was that while there was a lot of fast food available it was all wheat based. Bread, in large quantities, isn't good for you."

After reading a newspaper article that sales of porridge oats had risen 25% Stone found an alternative.

The Cranachan arrives in a rather swish cardboard pot of the type that luxury ice-cream is more normally found in. Inside, a large raspberry sits on a bed of warm oats crowned with a small circle of cream. After one mouthful it is surprisingly light and tart. The sharp, sweetness of the raspberry marries well with the saltiness of the porridge. The texture is superb. Not too light and not too heavy.

Stone says this is down to his unique blend. "There are two types of oats on the market," he says. "Traditional, which is ground either course, fine or medium or the modern method, which is cut. This is where a machine cuts the grains into small pieces."

Stoats uses a blend of the two.

Next I try Whisky and Honey. Like a rich chocolate mousse, it is hard not to overstate the pleasure this small pot of porridge gives. The sweetness of the honey soothes the whisky's spicy, hoppy flavour. And the saltiness of the oats gives the palate a real bite. It's like eating a hot toddy on an enormous velvet sofa and proves that healthy eating can be delicious.

"We use two-thirds water, one-third semi-skimmed milk and cook for 40 minutes on a slow heat," says Stone. "Slow soaking and cooking of organic oats soften the mix."

Lynn Dobson, a lecturer of politics at Edinburgh University, is a new regular at the bar. She likes to have a pot of the Brown Sugar and Double Cream for lunch. "I like the taste," she says. "The fact it is healthy is a bonus. It's a very good all-day snack."

Matt Beilby has been coming for a few days. He also works at the university and has got into the habit of having porridge for lunch. "It's supposed to be very healthy and help prevent all sorts of things," he says. "I'm not sure about that, but I do find it is a very good pick me up and gives me a mental boost."


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