Porridge has been part of the great British breakfast for thousands of years, and it’s easy to see why. A bowl of these humble oats is not only warming, but deliciously filling and a great source of energy. Not to mention it’s convenient and extremely versatile; you can’t get much better than a breakfast cereal that lends itself to almost anything you fancy adding to it! Here in the British Isles, this staple dish has taken several vastly different forms and earned considerable esteem throughout its long history. We take a look at a handful of the fascinating traditions and tastes, both new and old, surrounding porridge on this little island we call home.
Since medieval times Porridge Oats have been grown and eaten in Scotland, and is one of the most popular breakfasts in the region - especially during the freezing winters. Historically, Scottish households often kept ‘porridge drawers’ where porridge could be stored to solidify and consumed later in the day as solid bars of oats. The preparation of porridge, also known as ‘porage’, is quite a controversial subject in Scotland – many insist that true porage is prepared only with water and a pinch of salt, whereas others prefer the richer, creamier method of mixing water and milk to soak and cook the oats in.
There are some interesting porridge-related traditions in Scotland – such as that porridge should be served in a wooden bowl, and stirred with a wooden rod called a ‘spurtle’. Another tradition that isn’t readily observed these days stipulates that the dish should be eaten standing up. Some say that this is a mark of respect for the dish itself, but it’s more likely that this came about due to rural workers needing to eat their breakfast quickly before setting out to work!
The matter of whether sugar should or should not be included is heavily debated: some believe the dish should not be sweetened, while others suggest not only a generous amount of sugar but a little nip of whiskey for flavour and warmth as well!
Like the rest of the British Isles, porridge was also a basic staple in the Welsh diet as it could be easily cultivated in the Welsh climate. In the 20th century, oat based dishes like flummery (also known as Llymru in Wales) and Uwd (porridge) could be commonly found in Welsh households, often made by steeping oatmeal in water and buttermilk, which would be boiled until thickened. Using a wooden porridge stirrer, a traditional recipe for Uwd calls for 8 tablespoons of porridge oats, 1.2l of fresh whole milk, 4 tablespoons or more of sugar and a pinch of salt.
Porridge became particularly popular in the 19th and 20th centuries in Ireland, when it was mixed with whiskey as a cure for the common cold - that certainly sounds like a better alternative to cough medicine! Porridge and oatmeal has been a staple in Ireland from prehistoric times, although did suffer a slight decline in popularity when potatoes were introduced in the late 16th century. Despite this, most Irish households would have stores of oats in their pantries to make porridge, bread and black puddings.
Porridge has taken some particularly indulgent forms throughout English history. A popular dish from 1390 was ‘pea porridge’, which was featured in The Forme of Cury, (“The Form of Cooking”), written by master cooks in the court of King Richard II. Don’t go tipping petit pois into your morning bowl just yet though, as pea porridge requires a few more ingredients including herbs, onions and the spice of luxury - saffron.
Another ancient dish called ‘plumb porridge’ was often served at Christmas during the Elizabethan era. Distinctions in flavour, particularly sweet and savoury, were much more ambiguous back then and the dish gradually fell out of favour. Plumb porridge is prepared by boiling down a leg and shin of beef, and topping it with slices of bread before adding stock. You then add mixed dried fruit, barley, sugar and wine and boil until it has reached a porridge-like consistency. Depending on the family serving it, this porridge could be eaten with lemons, prunes, raisins or currants.
Today, many of us often prefer the simpler tastes of porridge with honey, Greek yoghurt or slices of banana, but at the heart of it all we still consider a bowl of delicious porridge oats (chunky or creamy depending on your preference!) a wholesome, energy filled way to start the day.