There’s no dish that reminds me more of my childhood than porridge. This humble and much-maligned breakfast of oats, soaked and cooked in milk or water, was a winter favourite for my family growing up in Australia. Turns out that porridge in Edinburgh is quite a thing.
While we had no ties to Scotland, where porridge is probably the country’s most quintessential dish after haggis, when the summer passed and cooler weather prevailed, the smell of simmering oats in the morning filled our house.
The first, the dish that everyone said was the traditional ‘Scottish breakfast’ was basically a ‘full English breakfast’ of bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, and sausages, sometimes served with the addition of baked beans and hash browns, and always enjoyed with endless pieces of buttered toasted, all washed down with lashings of tea. The Scottish version is marked by the addition of haggis and perhaps oat cakes.
However, the real Scottish breakfast according to many locals we met, including Donald Reid, the eating and drinking editor of The List magazine (see our interview with Donald here), is not an eggs-based dish at all, but the oats-based porridge.
It got me thinking that perhaps my series on ‘Weekend Eggs’ should have been named ‘Weekend Brunch’, but I had wanted to keep a narrow focus and emphasise how the humble egg can serve as a blank canvas upon which local ingredients such as chorizo in Spain and Mexico can be added. However, given that this was my last ‘Weekend Eggs’ of our yearlong grand tour for HomeAway Holiday-Rentals, I thought what the hell.
While porridge has historically had a bad reputation as hospital or prison food and has often been seen as an example of the lack of sophistication of Scottish cuisine, it’s making a pretty decent comeback in Scotland – and for a few good reasons.
Firstly, porridge is wonderfully warming and filling on a cold morning when you wake up with an empty stomach. Secondly, the oats are wholegrain and are far more nutritious than processed cereals. Thirdly, oats are also a fantastic source of complex carbohydrates, keeping you adequately fuelled for a busy day. For travellers, porridge is ideal if you’re hiking, walking, or just sightseeing around Edinburgh. Or anywhere for that matter.
You would think that something as humble as cooking oats would be free from debate, but some argue that it’s not ‘proper’ porridge unless you’re using pinhead oatmeal, where the oats are cut in small pieces rather than rolled. This type needs to be soaked overnight and has a nuttier flavour than rolled oats, which don’t require soaking and can be cooked in 5-10 minutes.
The cooking itself is rather simple – with some caveats. The standard rule is one cup of oatmeal to three cups of cold water and a pinch of salt, and stir over medium heat until thick. Some add a cup of milk with the water or a dash of butter – particularly good on a cold morning. After serving the porridge I always add a good sprinkle of brown sugar and a ‘moat’ of milk around the outside, to be drawn in a little with each mouthful.
When we visited the Edinburgh’s Farmer’s Market, the Stoats van was selling porridge with various toppings and was doing a roaring trade. The humble breakfast of oats had well and truly made a comeback in Edinburgh.
While my favourite version was on the menu, albeit the milk replaced by a thickened cream, I noticed a saucy little version with whisky and honey. Now that wasn’t something I remember my mother offering when I was a child…