A zealous convert in the land of oatmeal
Our breakfast table groans under various species of muesli and cornflake, but is rarely asked to support a steaming bowl of porridge.
This may seem odd. After all, we live in Scotland, where porridge is celebrated in verse and recipe as virtually a national dish. There are even rumors the Scots invented it. But although my wife is unquestionably Scottish, since childhood she has never liked porridge. Neither the taste of it nor the smell of it. On the other hand, I'm English and like the stuff.
I suppose we can't all be typical.
So if I find myself, as I now do, with a sudden sense of porridge deficiency, the decent thing to do is wait until she's left for work, and (since I work at home) indulge the whim once she's out of sniffing range. I've tried it for the past three winter mornings, and there have been no rumors yet of divorce proceedings.
I am even beginning to think that a day is not worthy of the name if it does not kick off with the warm comfort of porridge. It "sticks," they say, "to the ribs." I can vouch for it.
My liking for porridge, I should observe, is a remarkable example of the triumph of excellence over education.
I don't believe I had eaten any porridge at home before going away to boarding school. But I soon found that it was a favorite concoction of the school kitchen.
I suppose it was cheap. It also retains heat like a woolly blanket while being transported from kitchen to dining hall to feed a mass of ravenous boys. But, like some other school dishes, school porridge was not an edifying experience. It was lumpy. It formed a soggy crust. It was sticky or solid or both. It was, to borrow a splendid Scottish word, "gluddery." I fancy that only Oliver Twist could possibly have wanted more of it.
Of course, I was not at school in Scotland or it would surely have been different. Here they treat oatmeal with a passion underscored by sands-of-time tradition, if not downright superstition. An articulate and funny Glasgow journalist named Clifford Hanley wrote that "outside Scotland, porridge is often a highly offensive experience" and that "alien races brutalize this magnificent Scots dish by heaving sugar over it; or syrup, or even jam. To the Scot, these practices have all the allure of eating anchovies with chocolate sauce."
But there are Scots who are much less strict and purist, and at least allow children to sprinkle sugar on their porridge without any dire warning that this may irreparably damage their Scottishness. Robert Louis Stevenson no less, when he was a child, drew maps on his porridge with syrup trailing off his spoon. And I admit freely that although I put salt in my porridge as I cook it, I find the crunch and flavor of Demerara sugar (a light-brown sugar with large granules) on it utterly delicious.
What I do also greatly enjoy, though, and this is definitely a Scottish refinement, is having the piping porridge in one bowl and creamy milk, very cold, in another. You take a spoonful of porridge and submerge it in the milk before moving it to your mouth. The combination of hot and cold is delectable. If you pour milk directly into the porridge bowl, the milk grows sadly warm as you eat, and also it dilutes the porridge.
Fanatics (Scottish, naturally) maintain you should stir porridge with only one hand - I forget which - while it is cooking, and that you should eat it with a horn spoon, standing up. You should stir it with a spurtle (a long wooden stirring stick that originated in Scotland). And use proper steel-cut oats. Rolled oats may cook faster, but they make true Scots tremble with horror.
And yet ... quick-cooking oatmeal is made and marketed in Scotland, and I like it almost as much as properly made porridge. But then I'm English, and I had my palate ruined by school food, so my opinion doesn't count.
I love the way the Scots have made this dish all their own. They would have us think that as spinach is to Popeye, so porridge is to gigantic muscular kilted Highlanders tossing the caber.
Larousse, the authority on cuisine, paints a different picture. It suggests that it is an ancient Celtic dish, but may not have been a uniquely Scottish invention. It is eaten in Wales, Ireland, and throughout England, too.
I might add that both Goldilocks and the three not-very-gruntled bears had a famously soft spot for porridge and there is no evidence that any of them had one soupçon of Scottish blood.
But Scotland is more identified with porridge than is any other country. It even has different names for it in different places, such as "lite," "milgruel," "Tartan-purry," and "parritch."
And once a year The Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship takes place in a small Scottish village called Carrbridge, in Inverness-shire. Which seems entirely as it should be.
This recipe is from 'The Scots Kitchen,' by F. Marian McNeill, first published in 1929 and still available from Mercat Press in Edinburgh. Note that the proportions are vague, unless you have 'saltspoons' and 'breakfastcup' measures at hand. Modern recipes call for two cups of water per cup of oats (serves three to four). While it doesn't say so explicitly, this recipe is undoubtedly for steel-cut oats - also known as 'pinhead' oats, Irish or Scotch oatmeal, porridge oats, etc. (Note that it is not necessary to soak the oats overnight.) A line at the top of the recipe proclaims: 'The One and Only Method.'
Allow for each person:
One breakfastcupful of water
A handful of oatmeal (about an ounce and a quarter)
A small saltspoonful of salt
Use fresh spring water and be particular about the quality of the oatmeal. Midlothian oats are unsurpassed the world over.
Bring the water to the boil and as soon as it reaches boiling-point add the oatmeal, letting it fall in a steady rain from the left hand and stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise.... A porridge-stick, called a spurtle, and in some parts a theevil, or, as in Shetland, a gruel-tree, is used for this purpose.
Be careful to avoid lumps, unless the children clamour for them. When the porridge is boiling steadily, draw the mixture to the side and put on the lid. Let it cook for from 20 to 30 minutes according to the quality of the oatmeal, and do not add the salt, which has a tendency to harden the meal and prevent its swelling, until it has cooked for at least 10 minutes. On the other hand, never cook porridge without salt.
Ladle straight into porringers or soup-plates and serve with small individual bowls of cream, or milk, or buttermilk. Each spoonful of porridge, which should be very hot, is dipped in the cream or milk, which should be quite cold, before it is conveyed to the mouth.