Food: Oat couture
Porridge is back in fashion, but don't be seduced by the fast- food versions: a home-made bowl of unctuously creamy gruel is always best
Saturday 23 January 1999
This sounded like all the things I wanted to hear for all the wrong reasons. If a few more of my favourite foods were similarly sniffed at by commuters, they too might come freshly prepared. I was more than happy to wait in the downstairs bar, sipping a large espresso, but feeling older by the minute as loud disco music reverberated around the neon-lit room. A bowlful of thick porridge duly arrived, correctly offered with brown sugar, salt and milk and, while the setting left something to be desired, it was a hearty enough rendition, made with jumbo oats and water, and it was at least fresh. On leaving I apologised to the cook that I was unable to make more than dainty tracks into its gloopy depths, explaining I was on a porridge crawl that morning and had to save room for the next bowlful. This was round the corner at a newly opened Soup Opera, where soul took the place of disco but was played at the same shattering volume. It has to be said that both these places were empty.
In any case, I stood at the counter in front of the rows of utilitarian shiny steel vats and ordered a "peckish" portion of porridge, rather than the "hungry" or "ravenous" also on offer. Now peckish and porridge are not words I normally associate: the ancestral breakfast of Scottish warlords is hardly destined for light appetites. As I watched it being ladled into a paper cup I became faintly suspicious of the scum that clung to the side of the vat. Sure enough, the porridge was lumpy because (you may prefer to stop at this point if you are about to eat your breakfast) the skin was being stirred back into it each time a portion was ordered. Beyond this I was unable to deduce the secrets of how it was made: "It came from head office," I was informed.
I did at least discover that it was flavoured with cinnamon - flavouring porridge being the latest rage, as you will know if you watch any telly at all. Quaker has been bombarding prime airtime with its new product, "Oatso Simple", which comes in a range of flavours such as Golden Syrup, Apple and Cinnamon, and Honey Bran. If this product is selling, then all credit to the power of marketing. Having showered us over the years with quick-cook oats, which take precisely five minutes to cook, it is wooing us with something which is two and a half minutes quicker. And, for the privilege of the lie-in, it has had to embellish the basic ingredient, to produce a notso pure and healthy breakfast.
There's only one thing for it and that's to make it at home. And, frankly, home is where porridge belongs, a panful of unctuously creamy gruel that steams up the whole of the kitchen in its half an hour of spluttering contentedly on the stove. This is based on the belief that real porridge should be made with oatmeal, the groat or inner part of the oat kernel, which comes in varying degrees of coarseness. My own favourite is the pinhead, or coarsest cut - pearly nuggets that cook to a nutty gloop. In Ireland there is a legendary oatmeal, called Macroom, which I stock up on when I am there. Otherwise there are various brands that come in tins that can be obtained from delis.
To make porridge for four people, put eight cups of water in a pan and bring it to a vigorous boil. Pour in two cups of oatmeal and add a pinch of salt, stirring with a wooden spoon (Scottish tradition dictates that this should be done clockwise). Now simmer it over a pathetically low heat for half an hour while you go and have a shower, returning to check it now and again.
After about 20 minutes, the oatmeal grains will appear to have swollen, and then in the final stage of cooking it will splutter like a sulphur spring, becoming thick and creamy and almost like custard between the grains.
Serve the porridge hot enough to burn your lips and tongue, with the courtesy of some unrefined light brown sugar, single cream, a knob of butter and a tot of whisky offered separately. I find additions such as cinnamon and raisins a bit too modern; keep it retrograde.
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