Technically the word 'porridge' can refer to any kind of grain cooked into a mush, but for anyone with even a drop of Scottish blood, porridge means only one thing — oatmeal porridge.
Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer and lexicographer, best known for ‘Dr. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary’ (1755) defined oats thus: "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."
Just a tad prejudiced, don't you think? Well, it was only a decade after the failed Scottish uprising against the English. And to Johnson's definition, someone not quite so anti-Scottish responded: "Ah yes, sir, but where will you find such horses, such people?"
I was brought up on porridge, cooked the Scots way, with only oatmeal, water and a pinch of salt. I hadn't eaten it since I left home, but a few years ago I started eating it again because my cholesterol was a bit high, and oatmeal porridge helps reduce cholesterol levels.
And oh, I'd forgotten how much I like it. My cholesterol is fine now, but I still tuck into my porridge most mornings, particularly in winter. I still cook it the Scottish way, with nothing but water and a pinch of salt, and some milk added afterwards. This was my breakfast this morning.
Johnson was right, though — oats did support the Scots people through many a hard winter. Oats is one of the few grains that grows well in the Scottish climate, and being healthy, filling and cheap, porridge was a meal eaten by rich and poor alike.
Porridge is beloved of the Scots. When I was a little girl my parents used to play this record of Scottish songs and I would sing along phonetically to this Gaelic song, with no idea of what the words meant. It's here, and it's all about making porridge — thin and watery sparse porridge.
The traditional method of cooking porridge uses a spurtle, a stick with a knob at the end. My dad gave me this spurtle years ago when I left home. He was the porridge maker in our house. Mum would put the oats out to soak overnight and in the morning Dad would cook it. I don't use it much, though — I use this wooden spoon, but shh, don't tell.
Traditionally porridge is eaten with a horn spoon, with a side dish of rich milk or cream, into which you dip each spoonful. We simply poured milk over ours, and as kids used to make islands and seas and canals. Porridge was one food we were allowed to play with — as long as we ate it all up.
Sometimes we kids drizzled ours with golden syrup or treacle (molasses) or were allowed a sprinkling of brown sugar as a treat. My grandmother was especially fond of giving us treacle (like black molasses) because she was certain it was full of iron and therefore good for you. It wasn't, but we weren't going to argue. It was delicious. And fun.
Porridge is now Posh!
Porridge seemed to be drifting out of favor some years ago — it was seen as old fashioned and dull, but now it's experiencing a big resurgence in popularity, initially because of the health factor — it's good for you in so many ways. But people have taken it to a whole new level. Do a Google image search for 'gourmet porridge' and you'll see. People add fruit, other kinds of seeds and grains, all sorts of additions.
In England there are even porridge cafes and stands, where people can grab a quick, healthy and delicious breakfast. There's an annual porridge-making competition in Scotland where the winner receives The Golden Spurtle Award and people travel from all over the world to compete. Some of the recipes there are very far from the traditional. They look very yummy.
But isn't posh to be "Doing Porridge."
Because porridge is widely served in the British prison system, "doing porridge" is slang for doing time in prison. Not posh at all.
How to ruin porridge
1) Forget the salt.
I saw a documentary once, where Prince Harry had made porridge for some friends, and it tasted terrible. He was mortified, and kept saying "But I make porridge all the time. I don't understand it." I kept telling the TV — "you forgot the salt!" It's very easy to do. I happened to mention on Facebook the other day that I'd forgotten the salt in my porridge, so it tasted terrible and to my surprise it sparked quite a debate as to whether to use salt or not.
2) Burn it.
I'll let this extract from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte describe it:
Ravenous, and now very faint, I devoured a spoonful or two of my portion without thinking of its taste; but the first edge of hunger blunted, I perceived I had got in hand a nauseous mess; burnt porridge is almost as bad as rotten potatoes; famine itself soon sickens over it. The spoons were moved slowly: I saw each girl taste her food and try to swallow it; but in most cases the effort was soon relinquished. Breakfast was over, and none had breakfasted.
So now, over to you. Do you love or loathe porridge (or oatmeal)? If you do, do you cook it with or without salt? Do you jazz it up with exotic ingredients? And if not, what do you have for breakfast?