Are you getting your oats?

The ancient Britons - and Oliver Twist - couldn't live without it. So why has our oldest grain always lived in the shadow of wheat?
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Scotland is the spiritual home of oats. Dr Johnson made no friends north of the border when, composing his great dictionary in 1775, he defined them as: "A grain which in England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people." That wasn't entirely true. In England, porridge oats were widely eaten by the poor, being cheaper than other kinds of grain. When Oliver Twist asked for more, that was the best he could hope to get.

Scotland is the spiritual home of oats. Dr Johnson made no friends north of the border when, composing his great dictionary in 1775, he defined them as: "A grain which in England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people." That wasn't entirely true. In England, porridge oats were widely eaten by the poor, being cheaper than other kinds of grain. When Oliver Twist asked for more, that was the best he could hope to get.

But, among the privileged classes, Johnson's prejudices prevailed, and oats still tend to be given short shrift in gastronomic circles, despite the grain's versatility, tastiness and health-giving qualities. I say this having read what may be the first cook book devoted solely to the subject, Rita Greer's excellent Oat Cuisine (Souvenir Press £9.99). Recipes from it are reproduced opposite.

Greer's book brought back a little of the amazement I first felt when I stumbled on F Marian McNeill's classic Scots Kitchen, first published in 1929, a marvellous evocation of Scottish eating, and one of the most fascinating books about food written in these islands. A substantial part of McNeill's book concerns cooking with oats, and the section on oatcakes is encyclopaedic. It was here that I first heard of such things as branderbannock (a thick bannock cooked on a gridiron) and een-cakes (made of yeast and oatmeal and oven-baked ).

Bonnach salainn, I discovered, was a salty oatcake baked for Hallowe'en, and believed to induce prophetic dreams (no water was to be drunk and no words spoken after consuming it, or the spell would be broken). The dough for St Columba's cake included a silver coin. This was baked over sacred wood - yew, oak or rowan - and the child finding the coin would receive baby lambs.

The oatcake yule-brunie, by contrast, has a hole in the middle to keep the trolls at bay, and is pinched into points to symbolise the sun. It's no surprise that many recipes should celebrate pre-Christian traditions: oats are the oldest grain grown in Britain because they are more tolerant of our northern climate than rye, barley and the wheat that finally displaced them.

For - although oats were fine as a nutritious staple for the palates of our ancestors - because they contained little gluten they couldn't compete with wheat. It is the gluten in wheat which produces the elastic dough which expands upon baking to produce light, airy bread. A loaf made of oat flour alone is as leaden as a brick.

Because of that we tend to forget that oats can be wonderful to cook with. As well as being full of the right kind of cholesterol, they are ideal for athletes because they release energy evenly and slowly. And for those with an intolerance to gluten, they're a godsend.

Rita Greer's compendium of delights seriously challenges the claims of wheat: think muesli and granolas, porridges and pancakes; oatmeal soups and stuffings of all sorts; buns, crispbreads, biscuits and teabreads; pastries, puddings and flapjacks. Oats even make soft and supple breads when mixed with white flour, half and half. Toasted lightly in a pan, the grain has a delicious nutty taste, not unlike that of sesame seeds, and it is excellent in certain Scottish desserts.

Of course, there are oats and there are oats. The distinction between Scottish oatmeal and rolled oatflakes is marked. Oatmeal is in no way a convenience food, since the tough grain needs to be soaked all night, then cooked for 20 minutes or more. The invention of rolled (or quick) oats cut cooking time to almost nothing - giving rise to a distinctly Sassenach version of porridge.

It was the revolution in breakfast cereals last century which finally replaced oats at the table. The Americans invented new, convenient cereals using wheat, rice and maize. Only relatively recently did oats eventually made a comeback at breakfast, as the essential ingredient in muesli, revived in the 1980s, a century after the Swiss dietary pioneer, Dr Max Bircher-Benner, championed the healing powers of fruit and grain.

Greer is by training an artist - graduating from the Royal College of Art - and was once commissioned to paint David Frost as a ferret. She became concerned about nutrition when her husband developed multiple sclerosis and a brain tumour. As a home carer, she has been hardly able to leave the house. She turned to writing and has produced some 30 books on aspects of diet and healthy eating.

Rita Greer's parkin

Makes 10-12 pieces

100g/4oz polyunsaturated margarine

1 level teaspoon mixed spice

4oz/100g soft brown sugar

1 level teaspoon ground ginger

100g/4oz black treacle

100g/4oz plain flour

100g/1oz fine oatmeal

1 egg

Pinch salt

1?2 level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

5 tablespoons milk

Preheat oven to 325F/160C/Gas 3. Put the margarine, sugar and treacle into a large heavy-based saucepan. Heat gently until margarine has melted and sugar dissolved. Take off the heat and leave to cool while you grease an 18cm (7in) square tin and line it with greased greaseproof paper.

Put the flour into a bowl with salt, bicarbonate and spices. Mix well, then stir in the oatmeal. Make a well in the centre. Whisk egg and milk in a basin. Add the cooled mixture from the saucepan.

Whisk again and pour the mixture into the well. Use a metal spoon to stir everything to a sloppy batter. Pour into the prepared tin and bake for about an hour on a centre shelf. When baked it will spring back if pressed lightly with fingers. Cut with a sharp knife when cold.

Oat and potato crispbreads

Makes about 20

50g/2oz plain flour

3 pinches salt

50g/2oz porridge oats

40g/11?2oz polyunsaturated margarine

50g/2oz mashed potato

Preheat the oven to 325F/160C/Gas 3. Mix flour, salt and oats in a bowl. Rub in margarine until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Put in potato and pull the mixture together to form a ball of dough. Knead, then roll out thinly. Cut into squares with a sharp knife. Place on baking sheets lightly dusted with flour. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, top shelf, until they begin to turn golden brown around the edges. Cool on a wire rack.

Flapjacks

Makes 12

50g/2oz polyunsaturated margarine

100g/4oz demerara sugar

170g/6oz rolled oats

50g/2oz golden syrup

Preheat oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Put margarine, syrup and sugar into a pan and set over a gentle heat. Stir with a wooden spoon, until margarine melts and the sugar dissolves. Take off the heat and stir in oats. Spread the mixture over the base of a 20cm (8in) square tin. Use a metal spoon to flatten it evenly. Bake on top shelf until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Leave to cool in the tin for five minutes, then cut into 12 pieces. Leave in the tin to grow cold. Store in an airtight container.

Go with the grain

Oatmeal Meal is the milled grain, sold in three grades: pinhead (coarse), medium and fine. It requires long soaking and at least 10 minutes cooking.

Porridge oats or oatflakes Also known as rolled oats, flaked oats, quick oats and easy oats. Heat-treated and flattened to make for quick cooking.

Jumbo oats Larger flakes of rolled oats, which possess a nuttier flavour.

Oat bran Thin layers of fibre removed from the outside of the grain. Sprinkled on cereals by those who want increase fibre in their diet.

Oat germ The nutritious heart of the grain. This is usually sold mixed with oat bran as an ingredient for muesli.

Groats The whole grain from which the husks have been removed. They need long soaking and cooking to make them palatable. Available in some wholefood stores.

Oat flour Seldom seen in the shops, but it is easy to make your own by milling flakes or grain in an electric coffee grinder.

Oat milk The grain can be processed to make a milky drink, sold as "non-dairy", and used by vegans, usually flavoured with vanilla, cocoa or fruit.

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