A global food for gods and man

Sandy Neil, oats story for food and drink column.
Sandy Neil, oats story for food and drink column.

It’s the harvest, when the season’s crops of barley, oats, rye and wheat are gathered from golden fields.

These cultivated grasses grew wild until the Neolithic revolution 10,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers first settled down as farmers.

The Romans called them “cereals” after their god of agriculture Ceres. Each seed is a complex little storehouse of energy, packing carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and oil to grow next season’s new plant.

Barley was one of the first domesticated grains in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East 10,000 years ago, from the wild grass Hordeum vulgare, where barley soup, or Sawiq, is still eaten in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan.

Barley gave us our word “barn”: a shortening of “barley house”, and the Old English bere survives in Orkney and Shetland as beremeal bannocks, cooked on a griddle like oatcakes.

“Barley is low in gluten content, so it makes a rather flat loaf,” writes Elizabeth David in English Bread and Yeast Cookery; in 15th-century England, barleymeal was baked into round, flat, non-porous loaves and used as plates.

Any grain can be malted – or germinated, turning stored starches into sugar – but barley is brewed into wort for whisky and beer; barley beer was probably the first drink developed by Neolithic humans. In Scotland, barley is “pearled” to remove bran and the outer husk and used to thicken Scotch broths, or it’s boiled to make a sweetie, Scots barley sugar.

Rye, a member of the wheat tribe Triticeae, grew wild in Turkey, surfacing in Europe’s archeological record during the Bronze Age 1800-1500BC.

Dark and light rye flour is baked into Polish, Hungarian and German breads such as pumpernickel, which is often flavoured with caraway, dill or cumin seeds, and into Scandinavian dry crispbreads such as Ryvita. To our British tastes, the best bread flours are milled from wheat berries, thanks to their high content of gluten: a glutinous protein glueing the skin of the tiny CO2 bubbles formed by yeast activity in the dough. Without gluten this gas escapes, and the bread fails to be light or aerated.

“Oats are the flower of our Scottish soil,” writes F Marian McNeill in The Scots Kitchen of the grass Avena sativa, cultivated in Europe since the Bronze Age, and for centuries a staple food of the poor.

The cooler climate of Scotland, north England and Northern Ireland suited growing this cheap, nutritious “health food”, popular since the sixth century. In 1327 the French chronicler Froissart noted that Scots soldiers rode into England with a bag of oatmeal and a flat stone, mixing up a paste of oatmeal and water into little cakes to cook on the stone among the campfire embers.

“A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people,” is how Dr Samuel Johnson defined the oat in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. Oats grow and ripen in the field, go straight from field to miller, sometimes via a solid oak chest or “girnal”.

“In meal from the local mills, as in chateau wines, there are constant minor differences in taste,” continues McNeill, “due in part to the quality and age of the grain, and in part to the temperature and time taken in the kiln. It is to the kiln that we owe the delectable flavour of the best oatmeal.”

The nature of the fire – as in whisky – gives character to the nutty, sweet-smelling grain.

“There’s been milling on this site since the Kelso Abbey Charter in 1128,” says Douglas Veitch, managing director of Hogarth’s Oat & Barley Millers on the banks of the Tweed and Teviot junction pool. Here Border farmers’ barley is pearled for household name soups and broth mixes, and their oats kilned, husked and cut for Nairn’s Oatcakes and local butchers’ black puddings and haggises.

You can even buy a whole winter’s supply of porridge oats straight from the mill in 5kg bags of rolled oatflakes or pinhead, medium or fine oatmeal for £4.40 – and since oats are a dried food, they last up to a year.

Nothing is wasted: enclosing each kernel or groat are two fibrous, papery husks called chaff, which are hulled for animal feed, and beneath the husk lies a hard, nutritious layer removed as “oat bran”.

Grain grown in the Merse breadbasket sailed down the Tweed to the port of Berwick, where Silvery Tweed, a family- owned mill established in 1843, still sends into the world cereals from Border and Northumberland farms.

“We’ve good growers and good land,” explains managing director Bob Gladstone, the fifth generation to head the company, which has supplied barley flour for Robinson’s Barley Water since 1922, and once for bottles of Lucozade too. Ninty-eight per cent of Silvery Tweed’s wheat and barley grows within a 40-mile radius of Berwick, and fills boxes of Dorset Cereals and Kellogg’s Just Right or muesli, packets of Warburtons bread, and up to eight million loaves of Hovis a week in the UK.

Oats formed the staple meals in Scotland and its border counties, so Scots cookery isn’t short of oat recipes. “Aitlaif” or bannock, cooked on the bakestone or griddle, took the place of loaves, while skirlie or “skirl-in-the-pan”, mentioned in Scott’s Old Mortality, is a dish of oatmeal and onion fried in butter, excellent with roast pheasant or grouse, or chappit (mashed) potatoes. Hodgils is a Border name for oatmeal dumplings, made following F Marian McNeill’s recipe.

She writes: “Put some oatmeal into a bowl, season it with pepper and salt and a few chopped chives (if liked). Mix with fat from the top of the beef broth. Form into balls and pop into the boiling broth. Cook for 20 minutes. Serve with meat.”

In Broths To Bannocks, Catherine Brown records a refreshing oatmeal drink “taken to the moors during peat-cutting and kept ice cold by being submerged in a bog or burn until needed.

“Pour one pint of cold water onto two heaped tablespoons of oatmeal, leave for 15 minutes, then pour the liquid through a sieve and put in a cool place.”

She also documents an oatmeal soup traditionally eaten in the Highlands, writing: “Fry an onion in butter until soft but not coloured, then add two tablespoons of medium or fine oatmeal, chicken stock, and simmer covered for 30 minutes. Sieve or liquidise, heat with thin cream, and sprinkle with parsley.”

St Columba’s favourite meal was reputedly brotchán roy: a leek or nettle broth thickened with oatmeal. Bluthrie was the name given to thin porridge or gruel in Ettrick, and gogar to a dish of whey boiled with a little oatmeal in Roxburghshire.

Brose, a porridge soup of water or milk poured onto oatmeal, fuelled Scotland’s shepherds and scholars: university students survived on the sack of oatmeal they brought with them each term, and even today the mid-term holiday at St Andrews is called Meal Monday.

The Scots custom was to serve herrings fried in oatmeal at breakfast, but F Marian McNeill argues the case for dinner too.

“A herring fried in nutty oatmeal and accompanied by a mustard sauce makes a noble supper dish, and never better than when coarse oatmeal is used and the fish is fried in bacon fat.

“For brown trout, however, I prefer a dusting of the finest oatmeal; and it should, of course, be fried in butter.”

But our breakfast today is ruled by, in Burns’ words, “the halesome parritch chief o’ Scotia’s food”, traditionally stirred with a “spurtle”, “theevil” or “gruel-tree”, served with cream, milk or buttermilk in a hard wood bowl of sweet birch, and eaten with a horn spoon (which doesn’t conduct heat). The spurtle creates “knotty tams”, or wee knots with raw oatmeal inside to contrast texture. Burns also alludes to beer porridge, or ale crowdie, in his poem, Scotch Drink: “The poorman’s wine / His wee drap parritch, or his breid, / Thou kitchens fine.”

Porridge is an ancient dish, slurped beyond Scotland’s borders. In Afghanistan and Iran, they breakfast on an ancient dish of wheat and lamb porridge called “haleem” in Arabic, which is cooked with milk and clotted cream (qymaq), and spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and sugar.

Lamb porridge isn’t a foreign notion: after all, what’s haggis? Russians eat buckwheat porridge (kasha) for breakfast (zavtrack), or as a side dish at banquets (pir) – flavoured with pepper, herbs, garlic, vanilla, nutmeg or cinnamon. The Armenians have the longest Christian tradition of any people, and on Christian feast days they serve harissa: a slow-cooked wheatmeal porridge with chicken, butter and cinnamon. Armenia, a land of cereals, also serves as a hot or cold dessert, sweet soup called “anooshapoor”, of wheat grains, apricots and mixed dried fruits.

So come October 10, you and many others across the world can celebrate World Porridge Day.

The day before, on an iconic date 9.10.11, in the Cairngorms National Park, Carrbridge will be stirred by the World Porridge Making Championship.

Every year the Golden Spurtle is awarded to the porridge-maker who makes the best bowlful using only oatmeal, salt and water – and there’s even a prize for best speciality porridge with extra ingredients, such as kedgeree porridge, and oatmeal bangers and porridge mash.

You can enter, or discover if Scotland defends both title and trophy, at www.goldenspurtle.com