Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Golden Spurtle

Alchemy and mystery need to take a back seat today, because this day (10/10/10) marks World Porridge Day! Never heard of it? Well, this extravaganza brings together oodles of spoon wielding, oat stirring cooks from around the world in the Scottish highland village of Carrbridge. They compete for the Golden Spurtle, an award marking excellent porridgemanship if ever there was such a thing; and they also raise some money for charity while they're at it.

Oh my, even a quick read of that first paragraph gets my scholarly heart racing, my historical brain brooding and my stomach, well, growling. I shall suspend the dash into the kitchen for my elevenses (guess what's on the menu?) to elaborate - I suffer for my art.

The world in a grain of oatmeal
Basics first: the origins of porridge go (and I use the technical term here) way back. It is a fact that the human bowel does not like raw grains. A couple of spoons of uncooked rice or barley would not only be very unpleasant to chew and swallow, but also difficult to digest, which defeats the whole point of food: no efficient nutrition, no pleasure, just rubbish. Soak the grains and cook them, and it's a different story. Ancient cooks picked up on that rather quickly. In fact, hot cereals predate the baking of bread and the brewing of beer as we know it. I call porridge the bread/beer for beginners.

Nutrition and food science have relaunched the porridge as a superfood. Cue buzz words like wholegrains, protein, fibre, vitamin E, several B vitamins, zinc, antioxidants and, golly, even phytochemicals! Slow release of energy, food of both gods and athletes. There is even more information on the Golden Spurtle website, but I think, like porridge, some of this is to be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps we can just agree on the fact that porridge connects simplicity, culinary cunning and comfort in a bowl, and connects people across the world and its ages with a heartfelt 'yum' and a pat of the belly.

International intermezzo
At this point, I cannot help but throw in this video, made by one American guy who travelled across 42 countries and got the people from all over the world world dancing for this wonderful, wonderful clip. Click on the link below the image and enjoy!

Right. Now you want to know how to make porridge, right? Or more likely, you've been using the same method for years and are waiting for me to propose a perfect method, only to feel superior (because, quite obviously, yours is so much betterer than mine!). Well, I shan't comply. Porridge production is as touchy a topic as religion or politics. Don't let's go there, shall we?

Viewed from a safe distance, porridge shows different characteristics in different countries. Scottish porridge is traditionally made without milk, just from water, oats and salt, and it is this mixture that will gain someone the Golden Spurtle today. My impression of English porridge comes with the authority of the University of Oxford behind it: for what it's worth, my brother returned from his first stint at that place of learning with a formula shared by one of his professors: O-W-M 2:3:2. That is to say, two parts oats, three parts water and two parts milk; pinch of salt; cook, stir, let sit, eat, Bob, uncle.

Whatever you do, do not be fooled by those sachets of 'quick oats'. Admittedly, the Dorset cereal variety (no added dodginess, just oats and dried fruit) are handy for the office. But 'quick'?? How much quicker could a dish be? If you use the slightly unorthodox yet perfectly acceptable method of pouring some boiled water on oats and shoving everything into the nukomizer for a minute or two, there you are!
Steel cut oats (image from Wikipedia)

Finally, a word on oats. Depending on where you live, you'll have a choice of 'traditional' or 'rolled', 'quick' or 'porridge' oats, and it's all rather confusing. The difference is in the violence exerted upon the oat as it is crushed into a flake. The more force, the smaller the particle, the quicker the cooking and the mushier the result. It comes down to taste, I suppose - but given how cheap oats are, go on, spend that extra 50p on a bag to discover whether the organic ones are really better than the traditional ones. You might be surprised, either way. It is thus that I discovered steel cut oats, which are readily available in the US but much harder to get over here. For steel cut oats, the oat is not squashed but rather cut into two or three pieces. They require soaking overnight, but they have a wonderfully nutty flavour, a hearty texture and yet an overall delicacy that makes you want to enjoy them just as they are, with a tiny drizzle of honey and a dash of milk (or, even yummier, soy milk) sloshing around it.

The golden spurtle
I know, I know, the golden spurtle has been on your mind since that first paragraph. You can follow the competition on the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Champion website. By the way, a spurtle is a wooden Scottish kitchen implement (dating from the Middle Ages, apparently), used for traditional porridge stirring. Now you know. What I don't quite understand is how it is superior to your regular wooden spoon - smaller base surface? Better hand/wrist feel? Some scientific connection between stirring behaviour and the smoothness of the resulting porridge? Oh darn, here's history repeating itself... now I want one...

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