October 10th is World Porridge Day, a good opportunity to remind ourselves of this inexpensive super food which comes to us in many variations – it’s basically one of the great convenience foods of the world.
Virtually every food writer and journalist who stays at Ballymaloe House raves about the porridge that they serve for breakfast with a generous drizzle of Jersey cream and a sprinkling of soft brown Barbados sugar. It’s not just any old porridge – it’s Macroom oatmeal, lovingly kiln roasted and milled by Donal Creedon at Walton’s Mill, the last surviving stone mill in Ireland. The mill has been in the same family since the 1700’s. Donal, the great, great, great, great grandson of founder, Richard Walton, carefully and respectfully carries on the tradition.
The porridge is sold in the same distinctive red, white and yellow bags – which is somehow reassuring. The oats are gently toasted for up to two days on cast iron plates to give the oatmeal the distinctive toasted flavour we all love.
Long gone are the days of gruel and watery porridge….. So if you are convinced oatmeal is just for breakfast – think again! The texture is deliciously chunky and packed with flavour. Steel cut or what many refer to as pinhead oatmeal, which takes considerably longer to cook. Jumbo rolled oats and ‘speedie cook’ rolled oats, are also delicious. Oatmeal is not just for breakfast porridge, biscuits and granola. It’s also brilliant in savoury dishes such as savoury porridge with greens.
A past student Alex Hely-Hutchinson, opened a restaurant in London called 26 Grains. The 8 or 9 different types of porridge on their menu, both sweet and savoury have customers queuing every day. 26 Grains was probably inspired by GrØd, the porridge paradise in Copenhagen, opened in 2011 in a basement on Jaegerborggade, at that time a distinctively dodgy street with appealingly low rent. Now there are several branches and a GrØd cookbook. They were pretty much ‘skint’ when they opened but manged to afford to buy some oats to make bowls of hot steaming porridge – the rest is history…a huge success story! The menu now includes other comforting food like risotto, dahl and congee and there are now branches all over Denmark.
Oatmeal has a long and fascinating history. It has been grown in Ireland since medieval times, our humid, wet climate suits it. There are many historical references and a wealth of archaeological evidence. Oats were used in gruel, porridges, flatbreads and by all accounts, a not very good beer! The straw and chaff were used in the manufacture of floor covering, baskets, hen roosts and bedding – but back to the kitchen.
To use that much overused term, they are definitely a ‘super food’. Oats are packed with protein, high in soluble fibre, which helps to lower cholesterol and you’ll have noticed that you don’t feel like reaching for a donut at eleven if you have a bowl of porridge for breakfast. Apart from the fibre content which is good for your gut and helps to prevent constipation, it is super filling and satisfying and boosts our energy levels. Oats also contain a wide range of nutrients, vitamin E, essential fatty acids and if you are to believe all the research, helps to prevent cardiovascular disease by lowering your bad LDL cholesterol without affecting the good cholesterol. The high fibre and complex carbs help to stabilize the blood sugar according to the American Cancer Society. The lignans in oats helps to reduce hormone related cancers.
Up to relatively recently I was a Jersey cream and soft dark brown sugar devotee but I’ve become much more adventurous (led by my grandchildren and the Ballymaloe Cookery School students example). Think peanut butter and banana; walnuts, blueberries and maple syrup or honey, roast almonds, dates and almond butter (it’s all about what you sprinkle on top). Stewed apple or compote with cinnamon. I draw the line at white or dark chocolate chips but suspect that’s a generational thing.