Oats have long been of importance in the Scottish diet. Though derided by others as only fit for horses, the hardy Scots relied on the nutritional goodness and versatility of their oats.
Haggis, few have not heard of the weird stomach-stuffed combination of innards that constitute the haggis so beloved of our national poet Robert Burns. Oatmeal is an essential ingredient in that as in other ‘puddings’, white and black (blood). Such fare allowed every scrap of valuable animals to be utilised for food, not merely immediately, but buried in the oatmeal girnel, which could be an old oak chest (kist) or a seasoned oak barrel, they could be kept for months. Surrounded by our refrigerators and freezers we tend to forget what lengths our ancestors of necessity went to in order to keep food fresh and available.
In recent years many heath benefits have been claimed for oatmeal, with it said to lower cholesterol, that the beta-glucan contained in oats might reduce the risk of heart disease. So we now have a range of breakfast cereals that boast of the oats they contain, though less mention is made of the salt and sugar content.
My favourite way of eating oats is in oatcakes. Efforts years ago to master the art of oakcake-making were discontinued as frustration got the better of determination. With few ingredients (oatmeal, fat, baking soda, salt, hot water), it appears a skill that should be simple, but trying to get the ingredients to stick together until you can flatten and shape them is akin to corralling polystyrene balls in a gale. The water needs to be exactly the right temperature to make the ingredients stick otherwise the result is a crumbly mess. Too low a temperature or too much liquid and the result is quicksand.
I had the girdle (Scots for griddle), a heavy round flat pan with a semi circular handle crossing it. Traditionally it would have sat on the fire. My grandmother used it on the fire of her kitchen range, before it was eventually handed down to me as a family heirloom. That was at the tail end of the days when every woman was expected to have such wifely skills as the ability to bake girdle scones. The necessity for oatcake making seemed to have been dropped, whether because of an addiction to the new sliced loaves or a feeling that oatcakes were just not worth the effort.
So nowadays a packet of bought ones presides over my table, oatcakes made with olive oil rather than animal fat, though I doubt if that makes the bought variety any better for me than home made ones. And for cheese lovers everywhere, oatcakes are the best accompaniment to cheese. Their nutty flavour subtly enhances, whereas with crackers the surfeit of salt kills, probably both flavour and eater. And I must admit to being very partial to a good sprinkling of nutty pinhead oatmeal on my butter dressed potatoes. Or used with onions and possibly some bacon as a stuffing for birds. Yummy!
Oatmeal was of course traditionally used in a range of cheap, filling dishes – broses, gruels, crowdies and porridge. My grandmother shunned the labour-saving varieties that were beginning to come on the market as her porridge making days were ending. She still steeped the meal overnight and simmered it long in the morning, stirring with a long round stick called a spurtle. The traditional porridge bowl was made from a hardwood such as birch and the spoon was often horn. A bowlful of the food set you up for the day, though those who in centuries past tended animals or travelled often resorted to a nibble of the oatmeal stashed in their pocket to keep hunger at bay.
Although my grandmother made her porridge freshly every day, numerous stories abound from the islands and more remote areas of Scotland, of porridge being made in large batches. Whether a once weekly stew-up I don’t know, but it is clear porridge, probably because of the lengthy cooking time, often seemed to be made in bulk and poured into a drawer.
In a previous kitchen I had an old pine dresser, a comforting piece of furniture, large and commodious with two capacious drawers. Had I poured porridge into one of them I have no doubt of the result – a steady bombardment of sticky goo onto the dishes in the cupboard below, like meat squeezed from a mincer. But somehow the ancestors got their porridge to stay put in drawers, and if at any time peckishness overcame them, then a beeline was made to the drawer to cut a slice of porridge.
I find it difficult to envisage the consistency of this cold staple. Certainly long slow cooking made it glutinous as I can testify to, having washed numerous porridge pots. The remains formed a thick skin (perhaps our medical scientists should take note) that if you were lucky peeled off the pot sides. So perhaps a slice of porridge sat demurely on a plate like a slice of cake, but wobbled, a throbbing kind of wobble, more substantial than the light-hearted jelly wobble. A wobble that never threatened disintegration but had all the nutritional gravitas of the ‘halesome farin’’ of old Scotia.
And just in case I have given the impression that we Scots all live on oats and oatmeal, I can’t resist including this photo which I suppose reinforces the tales of our poor diet. But for many life would have lost much of its savour, and certainly football matches would, had it not been for the Scots pie. Nothing oatmealy about it as far as I know, but an image that gives a giggle. Enjoy.