Oat cuisine: Half of us now start the day with a bowl of porridge

Whether it's created with salt and a spurtle, topped up from the kettle or ready-made, there's a way that's just right for each of us, says Samuel Muston

It seems entirely appropriate that the slang term for a prison sentence is "porridge", for the dish of simmered oats in milk or water has until recently had a reputation for asceticism to rival the 'Scrubs or Strangeways.

Now though, the food that drove the Scottish crofter through till day's end and troubled the daydreams of generations of British schoolboys, has become something to lust after, something welcomed into the foodie fold.

According to research by Mintel, nearly one in two Britons (49 per cent) are porridge eaters, with a quarter of the population treating themselves to a bowl nearly every day. Sales of hot cereals – a sector largely comprised of porridge – almost doubled between 2008 and 2013 (reaching £214m), growth driven in part by oat-hungry 16- to 24-year-olds, 39 per cent of whom now eat porridge.

It is an astounding, almost Drew Barrymore-like rehabilitation. But then porridge is a food with a lot going for it. Have you ever heard of any other breakfast that has been heralded as revolutionising the development of life in Britain?

Alistair Moffat is the former rector of the University of St Andrews and chief executive of BritainsDNA, which uses DNA to analyse Britons' ancestry. He holds that when porridge was invented, as farming became organised in Britain, "it became possible to wean infants from their mother's breasts [with it] which made their mothers more readily fertile." Instead of breast feeding their child for years, the children got their nutrients from porridge. It is, he stresses, educated conjecture – but, nonetheless, it is unlikely anyone is ever going to make that claim for, say, Shreddies.

Even if one puts to one side its supposed value as an evolutionary kick-starter, its health benefits are enough to have one searching out the oat aisle. Jeya Henry, professor of nutrition at Oxford Brookes University, points to three health benefits in particular. Porridge contains a considerable amount of fibre, both soluble and insoluble, which is good for digestion. It is also low in GI, so you feel fuller for longer and the most interesting benefit derives from oat's beta-glucan content, which, Henry points out, has been shown to reduce cholesterol. If any food deserves that over-used title "super", it is probably porridge

"I would recommend it as a breakfast cereal," says Henry. "The only caveat is lots of us use the instant, 'just add water' stuff, which is high in GI because it has been 'instantised', so pre-processed, and is consequently higher in GI. But even then, though, it is better than many breakfast foods and certainly better than none at all."

A bumper oat harvest also means that this most inexpensive of foods, should, with any luck, be at its cheapest for consumers this year. According to The Grocer magazine, 138,000 hectares of Britain have been turned over to oat production this year. This is roughly 50 per cent more than last year and farmers expect a yield of nearly 100 million tonnes.

Another draw of hot porridge is the fact that it is traditionally made with only four things: oatmeal (or rolled oats), water, salt and heat. Though that simplicity conceals a deeper complexity, says John Boa, the man who rejoices in the title of winner of "The Golden Spurtle" (aka world porridge-making champion 2013). "In the competition, we follow the traditions and use only oatmeal, as distinct from rolled oats. They are, of course, similar things, but rolled oats are steamed and go through hot rollers – to me, the proper home of the rolled oat is the flapjack.

"The key to making good porridge," he advises, "is to start with dry oats in cold water and heat slowly, while constantly stirring with a spurtle – if I don't have my spurtle, if I am staying in a youth hostel, for instance, I turn a wooden spoon upside down, which is ultimately the same – and ensures the grains stay free before it thickens. Then you add the salt when it is at heat. It is a disaster with no salt."

It is fine and wise advice. Although most of us, it is fair to say, do not own a spurtle or even make our porridge from scratch, and the water is often wholly or partly substituted with milk. The figures showing the growth in porridge consumption conceals an interesting shift in the way we are eating the winter warmer. We are now increasingly likely to use instant porridge pots – such as Quaker Oats' Oat So Simple tubs (99p) or Moma's flavoured porridge (£1.49). These make use of pre-processed oats, to which you add hot water and scoff, probably over your keyboard.

Another driver of growth, though, comes in the form of the pick-me-up-and-go shop-bought hot porridge. This section of the market is dominated by the hot counters of Pret A Manger, Starbucks and, on a smaller scale, Le Pain Quotidien. It is here where the real growth is. Starbucks won't reveal exact sales figures but a spokesman says, "figures have shown a 25 per cent increase in porridge sales year-on-year."

Pret's creative chef, Nick Sandler, notes good sales at Pret, too: "It varies: interestingly on Monday we sell most, least on Friday. But we sell between 10,000 and 15,000 pots per day and a not inconsiderable amount in summer, too."

What makes this interesting is that the products these shops offer fly from the shelves and yet they are undoubtedly expensive if compared with a bag of oats. In Sainsbury's you can pick up a 1.5kg bag for £1.59. At Pret A Manger, a takeaway pot costs £2.35, while Starbucks charges £2. and Le Pain Quotidien £2.60. How do the shops explain this pricing? Sandler says: "We feel that Pret porridge represents good value for a delicious, natural and filling breakfast. At Pret, we have a wide range of breakfast products that cater for different price points."

While Dieter Pietsch, the food and beverage manager at Le Pain Quotidien, points out that it has to pay for service staff, labour and general business costs. Adding: "You would not be able to stay in business if you sold porridge for £1 or a £1.50." No one was available to comment from Starbucks.

Both make valid points, of course, to run businesses like they do costs money, lots of it. In this case, though, the price point does seem rather high. Still, what they offer is that much sought-after thing in modern life: convenience. They make an inconvenient food, which takes stirring and attention and spurtles and slow-cooking, into something easy.

And while it may be pricey, it remains, as ever, one of the best ways to start your day.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in What If
filmReview: Actor swaps Harry Potter for Cary Grant in What If
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment