Having published ‘From Home’ in November, and determined to get back into the way of regularly writing, I found it was time to start writing small articles on things that I enjoy during lockdown. Being the middle of winter at time of writing, the comfort and warmth of porridge came to be the “something” that I was “enjoying” in that moment. And so, here is an ode to oatmeal, of sorts.
Oatmeal has been at the heart of Scottish cooking for centuries. Through the years, it has been hailed as a dietary staple, but has also been demoted as food only for peasants, or even horses. Yet, the humble grain is still enjoyed throughout the world to this day. The reimagining of ancient recipes is a sign of just how versatile and wonderful oatmeal can be, whether it be pinhead, coarse, medium or fine grain.
Oatmeal’s most recognised use is, of course, in porridge – “Halesome parritch, chief of Scotia’s food”, as Burns coined it in his 1786 poem, The Cotter’s Saturday Night. Perfect for a hardy breakfast, or as a comforting snack, porridge, at its most basic, consists of only three ingredients: oatmeal or rolled oats, water and a pinch of salt. The dish is associated with good health, and a sense of sustenance – it is said that a bowl of porridge keeps you full for hours on end.
For a wholesome breakfast, I cover ¼cup of oatmeal with ¾ cup of water and add a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil and then cook over a medium heat, stirring with a wooden spurtle (a wooden spoon is also perfect!) for 15-20 minutes. For a smoother porridge, the oatmeal can be covered with water and soaked overnight. To top it off, I add a splash of oatmilk (you can never have enough oat) and a drizzle (or heap) of heather honey from local hives. I have known people to top their porridge with milk, fruit, sugar, honey, cinnamon, or nothing at all. You can add as much or as little as you like.
I use medium oatmeal, stoneground by Blair Atholl Watermill. The mill, dating back to the 15th century, is powered by a lade that runs down from Glen Tilt, the flowing water powering heavy millstones to grind Scottish oatmeal and wheat. The benefit of grinding oatmeal in this traditional way is that the grain’s natural healthy attributes are retained, along with a unique nutty taste.
Despite the charms of the traditional working watermill and its sustainability, Blair Atholl Watermill is now one of the last working watermills in Scotland, perhaps a reflection on a change in food production methods and a decline in demand for oatmeal. Modern cooking bears almost no resemblance to the days of cooking with cast iron pots over peat fires in bothies, porridge being ladled into a kitchen drawer to cool and harden, later to be sliced and eaten as a snack.
However, for many, oatmeal continues to be a wonderfully versatile gem of Scottish cooking. From being used as a tasty coating on fish or chicken, to bringing crunch to the centre of a beef olive, to being fried with onions and butter to make skirlie, oatmeal, as an ingredient, thrives with experimentation and imagination. When baking a crumble, I add ¼ cup of oatmeal to the flour. Doing this creates a crumble with a hearty crunch and a slight nuttiness, to add another layer to the sweetness of the apples or bitterness of the rhubarb.
Other noteworthy oatmeal delicacies –
Onion and oatmeal soup: My favourite soup ever. There are variations of recipes for this from all over Scotland, but the basics of it remain mostly the same: potatoes, oatmeal, onions, and stock.
White Pudding/Fruit Pudding: Delicious, sticky combination of suet, oatmeal, onions and spices. Dried fruit can be added.
Mealie Pudding: Most common in the North East of Scotland. Drier than white pudding, more akin to skirlie.
Oatcakes: Fashioned in all shapes and sizes all over Scotland, from various grades of oatmeal. My favourite are the thick oatcakes, with a soft texture, less crunch. That said, an oatcake is an oatcake and something I would happily eat all day.
Potatoes: Oatmeal makes a tasty coating for boiled potatoes – fry the oatmeal in a pan with butter, then roll the potatoes in the butter/oatmeal mix. Alternatively, roll the potatoes in raw oatmeal.
Cranachan: Classic dessert now commonly made with oatmeal, whisky, cream, raspberries and honey, though the recipe varies regionally.
Oatmeal Biscuits: Sweet tea biscuits.
Brose: Somewhat unusual to modern tastes, Brose is a soup-like drink made from uncooked oatmeal and water. A local historic variant of Brose is ‘Atholl Brose’, in which whisky is added: believed to have been used by the 1st Earl of Atholl to deter an army of Highland rebels in 1475.
Of course these are merely a handful of the hundreds of dishes that oatmeal lends its delicious taste and texture to. Though modern living excites our taste buds with new flavours every day, oatmeal is a reminder of how something that appears to be basic can be far from it. No matter its use, oatmeal is an ingredient that has never let me down, and one that I will continue to encourage others to bring into their cooking and baking, with a handful of experimentation and imagination.