Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The History of Porridge




'The halesome parritch, chief o' Scotia's food' from 'A Cotter's Saturday night' by Robert Burns (1785)


Porridge or "parritch," are allied to the word "pottage," indicating the practice of cooking ingredients together in a pot and thickening it with cereals. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word "porridge" did not come into use until the 17th century but porridge like dishes are thought to have been made in Neolithic times by boiling ground, crushed, or chopped cereal in water, milk. The Gaelic word for porridge is “leite” although it goes by other names including 'milgruel' in Shetland. It is generally defined as a dish made by stirring oatmeal or rolled oats into boiling water and simmering the mixture gently until it is cooked. Scot’s porridge is usually eaten hot for breakfast with optional flavourings and may be sweetened with sugar or honey. Traditionally it was eaten with salt. Eating porridge in cold countries is thought to keep the body warm during the long winter months.



Reference to Porridge appears in the "Vinaya" texts and the Lord Buddha considered the dish to have five benefits. The Five Endurances (Wuchang) were: overnight digestion, reduced flatulence, the quenching of thirst, the suppression of hunger and reduced constipation.



Climatic conditions meant oats and barley were the predominant crops to grow in the North of Scotland. Despite this oats did not predominate until the eighteenth century, thereafter it played an increasing role in the diet. This was especially true in rural areas where oatmeal often formed the basis of every meal. In 1794, Joseph. Donaldson observed the eating habits of farm labourers in the Carse of Gowie, and described oatmeal with milk cooked in different ways, was the sole source of sustenance throughout the year. Scottish emigrants took their food preferences to many far-flung corners of the globe.



Unflaked oatmeal had to soften to become edible, so it had to be cooked for a long time. The wooden spurtle (parritch stick or thivel) was used to stir it frequently to prevent the formation of large lumps. Traditionally Scots’ used a spurtle to stir the pot. It was important to always stir deiseal (clockwise/sunwise) with the right hand for luck. Stirring widdershins (anticlockwise) was said to invoke the devil or bring bad luck. Good bairns were often rewarded by having the spurtle to lick in addition to their share of the breakfast. The following is one verse of a song entitled 'Our gudeman came hame at e'en.' collected by David Herd in 1776.

Our gudeman came hame at e'en,
And hame came he,
And there he saw a shining sword
Where nae sword should be:
What's this now, gudewife,
And what's this I see ?
O how came this sword here
Without the leave o' me ?
A sword! quo' she,—aye, a sword! quo' he.
Shame fa' yere cuckold face,
And waur may ye see,
It's but a porridge spurtle
My mither sent to me.
A spurtle! quo' he,—aye, a spurtle ! quo' she.
Far hae I ridden, love,
And meikle hae I seen,
But silver hiked spurtles
Saw I never nane.





Oat grains are available as whole grains or groats. These are ground into oatmeal and steamed and rolled into flakes of varying thickness. These can be steel-cut, or toasted and stone-ground (Macroom Oatmeal). Rolled oats are used for many purposes; the bigger the flakes, the chewier the porridge. Toasting the oats beforehand for a couple of minutes gives the finished dish a distinctly nutty, roasted flavour. Choose rolled oats if you want a smooth consistency and a porridge that cooks quickly. Rolled oats have a medium grain and are used for oatcakes, biscuits and stuffing. Scottish traditionalists allow only oats, water and salt although full-fat milk makes a rich porridge. A ratio of one part of milk to two of water has been recommended as a happy medium. A little salt added towards the end of cooking is essential, whether or not the porridge is sweetened. Adding the salt too early hardens the grain, preventing it from swelling, and results in a less creamy bowl of porridge. Traditionally the mixture is said to whisper ‘Perth’ and ‘Gargunnock’ in a gentle simmering way when it’s ready. Letting the porridge sit, lidded, for 5 to 15 minutes may develop a little more flavour.



Porridge is highly nutritious because oatmeal contains protein, carbohydrate, fats, and soluble fibre, all the B vitamins, vitamin E, calcium, and iron. The lack of vitamins A, C, and D is redressed when it is combined with milk or vegetables. Oats are a slow release carbohydrate and perfect for a low G.I. diet. Research also shows they are also useful for lowering cholesterol. Porridge was customarily eaten while standing, but the reasons remain obscure. Some believe it helped fill the stomach "A staunin' sack fills the fu'est" (A standing sack fills the fullest), while others consider it as a precaution in times when an enemy may catch them unawares.



The oats used for porridge determine how hearty the final dish will be and how long to cook; the finer the oats the quicker the cooking time. The oats used for porridge are usually rolled rather than crushed and Scottish oats, also known as "pinhead oats" and are the ones used for Scottish porridge.This simplified the preparation of porridge and all oat-based dishes. In 1877 the Quaker Oats Company of the United States developed rolled oats or oatflakes by steaming and rolling the coarsest grade of oatmeal to produce pinhead oatmeal. Today’s muesli is a derivative of the Scottish porridge.



In the past the basic mixture allowed for numerous permutations, all with their own nomenclature according to locality. Brose was made by pouring boiling water over oatmeal, butter, and salt: with meat stock it became fat brose, while the addition of a green vegetable gave kail brose. Hasty Pudding was a form of porridge enriched and sweetened. Gruel was made by boiling the liquid that oats had soaked in, flavoring it with assorted ingredients and allowing it to cool to a jellylike substance. To make sowans, oat husks were soaked until sour, at which point the mixture was sieved and the husks thrown out. The liquid was a pleasant drink and the starchy sediment underneath was boiled and eaten either hot or cold, with milk, cream, or beer again served separately.



Once cooked, the porridge was ladled into porringers (bowls) with a separate bowl of milk, buttermilk, or thin cream close by. Each spoonful of porridge was dipped into the cold liquid and then eaten. Some sprinkled sugar over the porridge, and others preferred honey, treacle or syrup, or a knob of butter—the men might replace the milk with ale or small beer. Porridge was sometimes poured into a drawer in the kitchen dresser to be sliced when cold, either for eating out in the fields or for reheating in the evening.



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