When you think about oats, does your mind automatically conjure up a bowl of breakfast porridge? If yes, I’m not surprised; oats are so synonymous with the famous Scottish dish that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the porridge pot is where oats start and finish.
Historically, however, the oat grain has sustained much more of the United Kingdom’s population than just the Scots. From the earliest times up to seventy years ago, oats were the staple—if not only—cereal grain available to large parts of the UK, including central and northern England, Wales and Ireland. And as I have learned, the creativity of these peoples, when faced with only one cereal choice, elevated the humble oat grain into so much more than a bowl of porridge!
OATS—A TRADITIONAL SUPPLY CHAIN
The oat grain, so suited to the UK’s northern and exposed geography, traditionally was grown close to home. The harvest was carefully kiln-dried and then sent to the local stone mill where, with a wide setting, the husk was crushed from the kernel and winnowed away. Next, the miller put the oats through the mill again at a slightly narrower setting. Winnowing for a second time produced some clean grits to lay aside. The remaining grains were run through the stones a third time to get oatmeal. The grits, oatmeal and, as we shall see, even the husks were then employed in the kitchen!
The big-brand “instant” oats we see on store shelves today are a poor cousin of this ancestral grain. With consciousness of the incredible nutrient density of oats, I buy them as fresh and unprocessed as I can. Whole oat groats can be rolled at home with the help of an inexpensive flaker; this will preserve more nutrient value and also result in tastier grains than processed and packaged store-bought oats.
Porridge is one of Scotland’s most famous exports. As F. Marian McNeill wrote in The Scots Kitchen, “Oats are the flower of our Scottish soil and through that magic cauldron, the porridge pot, Scottish oatmeal has been transmuted through centuries into Scottish brains and brawn.”
Few know the traditional way porridge was made and eaten, however, so, let’s start by diving, so to speak, into the porridge pot! The Scots prepared their porridge with salted water, stirring it with a “spurtle” (a wooden rod). The spurtle’s advantage over the wooden spoon was that it dragged less, meaning the resulting porridge was smoother.
Once cooked, the porridge was served hot with a bowl of cold milk (or sometimes cream) on the side. By dipping each spoonful of oatmeal into the milk (rather than pouring milk over the whole dish), the oats stayed hot longer. In addition, the Scots traditionally stood while eating porridge. Some say it was to honor the beloved oat grain, others that it was to be prepared for enemies!
If you want to make authentic Scottish porridge, add two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt to two large cups of water and bring to a boil. While stirring this with a spoon (or spurtle) in your right hand, slowly sprinkle in one cup of coarsely milled or rolled oats using your left hand. Each oat must get sealed when it hits the hot water. Keep going until all the oatmeal is in, but don’t sprinkle so fast that you stop the water from boiling. Then, stir vigorously for a few minutes, put the lid on the pot, turn the heat to medium-low and leave it for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. Preparing it this way should leave you with a dish of individual, still chewy oats that don’t cling to the spoon or bowl—the epitome of “porridge” to a Scot.
Although this method of making porridge doesn’t include pre-soaking the oats, British households would often have soaked oats in a bowl of water overnight. In the morning the oat mixture was worked through a fine sieve and then boiled with milk to create a gruel which, salted and sweetened, was particularly indicated for the sick and also for nursing mothers.
I personally love to ferment my oats before cooking, stirring a generous spoonful of sourdough starter into a bowl of oats and water and leaving this out on the counter overnight before cooking well. Although the Scots didn’t do this pre-fermentation, they did a post-fermentation by pouring their still-warm porridge into a kitchen drawer after cooking. This stash would provide food for days afterwards. As the “porridge drawers” repeatedly used for this process were wooden, it’s likely that lactic-acid bacteria accumulated in the wood contributed to a robust post-cooking fermentation.
OATCAKES AROUND THE BRITISH ISLES
Arguably a more popular use for oats than porridge around the UK were oatcakes, a staple in Scottish, Welsh and Irish households. These were dry, transportable, wafer-like discs baked once a week on an open fire using a heavy “bakestone.” Oats are not easy to coax into a dough as their protein, avenin, does not have the strength of wheat’s gluten. Because of this, the process needed skill—the method of making these becoming lodged in the muscle memory of housewives. Fat, which would have been bacon drippings or butter, could be used to help bring together the dough, but the most skilled makers didn’t need this aid and would form the lean oaty discs with incredible deftness.
You can have a go at oatcakes in your own kitchen by following my directions (see recipe sidebars). They are wonderful warm and usually get eaten straightaway in my home. They will also keep for a few days, but will become softer. Originally, to help them last longer after cooking, they would have been further dried by the fire until very crisp.
Besides being eaten alone or with meals, there were other creative and popular ways of using oatcakes. For example, people often crushed and mixed them with liquids. In Scotland, the addition of stock made brewis, the addition of only water made browse and in Wales, the addition of buttermilk or whey made siot.
A WILD-FERMENTED OAT PANCAKE
There’s another oatcake that’s important to British food history, which I love to make in my kitchen. It hails from Staffordshire where, in the 1700s, it helped fuel the local pottery industry workers (Staffordshire is the land of the famous pottery-maker, Wedgewood). Originally, women had cottage industries, selling the oatcakes from their kitchen windows. The Staffordshire oatcake is still popular, so these days, dedicated shops open their doors at five o’clock in the morning to feed local workers.
The Staffordshire oatcake is much more like a pancake than the Scottish one. They are made by frying an oat batter. Until the 1800s, households placed the batter in a wooden barrel dedicated to oatcake fermentation. In this way, the batter became infused with “old” microbes, lending a wild ferment to the process.
I make these oatcakes at home with oats ground into a coarse flour; I ferment them with sourdough discard, though it could be done with any live starter. I fry thin layers of the batter in lard; the resulting pancake is soft and rollable but has a crisp lacy edge. Traditionally served at breakfast with bacon, eggs, cheese and mushrooms, they are a hearty and tasty way to start the day!
There are many more creative methods to make fermented pancakes using oats. You could soak oats overnight, as European traditions often have, in buttermilk and then add eggs, melted butter and raisins into the batter in the morning before frying in the same way.
Oats are particularly low in phytase, the enzyme that neutralizes phytic acid. Fermentation helps render them more digestible. It seems our ancestors, who relied on the cereal grain to live, knew this because the Staffordshire oatcake is not the only example of the fermentation of oats.
The Scots created a lacto-fermented oat product that gave them both an easy-to-digest porridge (called sowans) and a probiotic drink (called swats). They traditionally ate sowans on Christmas Eve, which the Scots called sowans nicht (sowans night).
I’ve been making sowans and swats in my own kitchen regularly for over two years, and I love them! The sowans porridge is creamy and tangy, and the swats drink is not only refreshing cold but also makes a hearty beverage when warmed with spices.
Incredibly, the Scots made these delicious oat products from “waste.” After sending their oats to the mill, they would receive two sacks back—one with the ground oats, and the other with the hulls that had been winnowed from the grain during the milling process. These hulls, as well as being coated in microbes perfect for initiating fermentation, would have had tiny pieces of the white carbohydrate-rich endosperm of the oat grain clinging to them—a perfect mix for a ferment!
To make sowans and swats, the hulls were mixed with water and left to wild ferment (without a starter) before being strained. The white powder that settled on the bottom was used for an easy-to-digest porridge, and the soaking liquid became the swats.
This method of oat fermentation wasn’t unique to Scotland. The Irish did the same thing (there, it was called cáfraith). In Wales, the dish (which was fermented with buttermilk) was called both llymru and sucan; here, instead of becoming a porridge, the fermented oat mix was cooked and then poured into wetted molds where it set beautifully into a cold jelly. This dish was later taken up by the English, who added spices and sweeteners (and called it flummery), but originally it was simply oats and water.
OTHER WAYS OF USING OATS
As you’ve now seen, oats were vital to a large portion of the UK’s population, being the central carbohydrate available. As well as oat-only dishes, oats were also the backbone of many more varied dishes. Most of us have heard of the traditional Scottish haggis, which is made by stuffing a sheep’s stomach with offal, suet, oats, onions and spices. As well as in haggis, the oat grain was often used in sausages; toasted oatmeal was mixed with lard and dried herbs before being boiled in sausage skins.
Due to the prevalence of the stove over the enclosed oven, sweet and savory “puddings” (steam-cooked, all-in-one dishes) were a staple. These were often as simple as oats and broth steamed together, perhaps with a few chopped onions added. More complicated versions could be “black” with blood and/or meat, or “white” with spices, dried fruit and shredded suet or even eggs and cream.
Oats were also often cooked with the ubiquitous ale (unhopped local beer) to make caudle, a warming, filling drink given to the sick or to travelers on completion of a long journey.
OATS: THE “TRUE AND WORTHY FRIEND”
Crispy griddle cakes, rollable pancakes, fermented drinks and jellies, sausages and puddings that could grace an everyday or celebratory table—yes, oats were vital to the Scottish, but they have also been much more than porridge to many people throughout the British Isles. You can see why, in 1615, Markham, in the book The English Housewife declaimed, “No house-keeper whatsoever hath so true and worthy a friend as his oats!”
Recreating these dishes in my own kitchen has helped me connect to my British ancestors. In addition, it has given my whole family the benefit of this delicious and nutritious grain in many more ways than just from the porridge pot!
I have cooked these on the stove using a cast iron pan (as they would have been baked originally) and also in the oven. The results are quite different, and I’d suggest trying both! This recipe is written for stovetop preparation. If you wish to use the oven instead of the stove, preheat it to 165C/330F before starting, place the oatcakes onto baking trays (no need to grease) and cook for 20-25 minutes until lightly golden in color.
The Scots did not pre-soak their oats when making oatcakes, but if you wish, you can soak the oats with an acidic medium and then dehydrate them back to dryness to ready them for this recipe.
Ingredients (makes three large oatcakes, which can be divided into a total of twelve servings):
200 g (2 ¼ cups) medium oatmeal
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons lard
80 g (1/3 cup) water
Extra oat (or other) flour for rolling
- Preheat on medium-high a cast iron pan that is at least 8 inches (20 cm) across.
- Measure the oatmeal into a heatproof bowl and add the salt, mixing well.
- Heat the water and the lard together in a small, lidded saucepan. Aim for the lard to be completely melted but the water not quite boiling.
- Sprinkle a working surface with oat (or other) flour in preparation for the rolling and shaping.
- Add the hot water-lard mixture to the oats and mix well. The mix will be hot, so be careful (start with a spoon,if necessary, before switching to hands).
- Bring the mix together into a dough. Squeeze it with your hands, encouraging its stickiness to work it into a large ball.
- Working swiftly (the dough is easier to form when it’s still warm), divide the ball into three and place the first piece onto the floured surface. Using your palms (or a floured rolling pin), flatten and shape the dough into a circle about 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter and about 1/8 inch (3 mm) thick.
- Cut the circle into four quarters (these quarters are traditionally called farls).
- Repeat this process with the remaining two dough pieces, so that you have three oat cakes, each divided into four pieces.
- Carefully transfer the oat cakes onto the hot cast iron pan (no cooking fat is needed).
- Cook them for 5-10 minutes per side, until they start to show a golden surface and lift slightly away from the pan at the corners.
- These oatcakes are best eaten fresh, ideally still warm! You can also keep them in a bread bin for a day; they are still good but will lose their initial crispness.
STAFFORDSHIRE OATCAKES—A NATURALLY FERMENTED VERSION
These oatcakes have been a staple way to start the day in the north of England for centuries and are traditionally made thin and pliable and then stuffed with breakfast foods such as eggs, bacon and sausages. These days, they are made with commercial yeast, but originally, they were fermented in wooden barrels that were used over and over again for the batter, their sides becoming impregnated with wild yeasts and bacteria. This is a fun sourdough version.
Ingredients (makes four pancakes):
200g (2 ¼ cups) very fine oatmeal or oat flour
250g (1 cup) water
1 tablespoon sourdough starter (you can substitute any active starter, such as dairy kefir, apple cider vinegar, etc.)
Pinch of salt
- In a bowl, mix well the oats or oat flour, water and sourdough starter.
- Cover and leave on the counter to ferment. How long you leave the mix is up to you—anything from a few hours to overnight. The longer you leave it, the more fermented and sour it will become. You can refrigerate the uncooked batter for a few days if you are not ready to use it straight away.
- When you are ready to cook, preheat a cast iron pan that is 20cm/8inches across. Put it on medium to medium-high and allow it to get hot (for me this takes a good ten minutes).
- Add a pinch of salt to your batter and stir it well.
- Add a generous knob of fat to the pan (I use lard).
- Using a large spoon, ladle about a quarter of the batter into the pan, encouraging it to cover the pan by spreading it in a circular motion with the back of the spoon.
- Cook until the upwards-facing surface looks dry (about 6-8 minutes), then flip the pancake and cook until golden-brown on both sides.
- Serve warm!
SOWANS AND SWATS
This natural oat fermentation produces a creamy, easy-to-digest porridge and a probiotic drink that can be enjoyed cool but is also great warm and spiced. I make it as the Scots would have done—with the crumbs of freshly rolled oats—but I give a more accessible version using oat flour here:
250 g (2 cups) wholegrain oat flour
muslin plus elastic for covering the jars
- Clean your jar well and place the oat flour into it.
- Top up the jar with unchlorinated water leaving a 2-3 cm (about 1 inch) space at the top and stir well.
- Cover the jar with muslin and secure with an elastic band.
- Ferment for 2 days to 2 weeks, stirring at least twice a day. The length of time depends on your ambient temperature, the yeasts/bacteria on your grain and your personal taste (the longer you leave it the more sour it will become). At 26 degrees C (80 degrees F) I leave mine 5-7 days, stirring 4-5 times a day.
- When fermented to your liking, agitate the mixture and pour through a medium to fine sieve. Compost the bran left in the sieve. Leave the strained mix to settle for at least 12 hours. The liquid can then be poured off—this is the swats. The white paste at the bottom is the sowans and can be cooked as porridge.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2022🖨️ Print post