Porridge oats and Scotland

Porridge oats and Scotland

If you come on one of our Eat Walk tours then your guide will almost certainly mention oats quite a few times.

They are a vital part of the haggis served on the tours and they also crop up as oatcakes to accompany the cheese which is offered on some stops.

Oats once formed the staple diet for much of Scotland. Made into bannocks – a type of flat bread or cake; an ingredient in black puddings; essential for white puddings and, of course, the key ingredient of porridge, oats were once much more common than wheat in Scotland.

Famously, when travelling through Scotland in the latter half of the18th century, the English essayist Samuel Johnson observed that in England oats were given to horses but that in Scotland they fed the people. This prompted his Scottish companion, James Boswell, to retort that this explained why England had such fine horses and Scotland had such fine men.

Whisky with your oats?

These days barley is Scotland’s main cereal crop with much of it going to the brewing and distilling industries or to animal feed. Nonetheless, we still produce around 175,000 tonnes of oats each year and a good proportion of that will end up being served as porridge.

These days, porridge is usually served for breakfast. Made with milk or cream and topped with soft fruit or honey, it can be a luxurious start to the day. In our more upmarket hotels, it is not unheard of for the waiting staff to even offer guests a wee dram of whisky poured over their porridge.

It is all a far cry from the days when porridge was a rather more austere dish made with water and salt. Rural workers would tip the sludgy mix into a porridge drawer where it would harden into an energy-dense slab. This could be cut into slice for easy transport into the fields.

I know which version I prefer.

World Porridge Championships

The 2019 competition at Carrbridge Pic by James Ross.

To really get an idea of how the humble dish of porridge can be elevated into an art form, you might wish to keep an eye on the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championships. The championships were first held in Carrbridge in 1994 and they have been held annually ever since. A tapered wooden rod, a spurtle is a traditional utensil for making and stirring porridge.

Sponsored by the oat manufacturers Hamlyn’s, there is a prize for the best traditionally made porridge and another prize for the Speciality Porridge – which is where entrants really show off their flair. You can peruse some of the winning recipes here.

Originally designed to draw attention to Carrbridge and promote porridge as a healthy meal, the competition attracts competitors from all over the world. Recent contestants have hailed from Sweden, Australia and the United States as well as the UK. This year, like last year, the event is virtual. However, the organisers are hoping that normal service will be able to resume next year and competitors will do battle in real life as they compete for the Golden Spurtle. Main pic shows the coveted Golden Spurtle. Pic from Golden Spurtle Facebook by James Ross.

This article was written by an Eat Walk Tours guide. The guides will talk about Scottish food and drink culture on the tour. If you would like more information about our food tours in Glasgow, Edinburgh or St Andrews please click on one of the following links. Eat walk tours run food and drink walking tours in EdinburghGlasgow and St Andrews.

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