Oat cuisine

By Louise France

The humble bowl of porridge is experiencing a renaissance. Photo / Supplied
The humble bowl of porridge is experiencing a renaissance. Photo / Supplied

If muesli, redolent of tie-dye and sandals, epitomised the late 1970s, and sexy, bronzed horns of croissant pastry were the power breakfast of the mid-80s, a bowl of creamy, soothing porridge seems to sum up neatly the mood of the nation as we near the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

Suddenly eggs benedict and pancakes seem like folly. Call it nostalgia or a childish longing for comfort food, or a rampant fear of cholesterol, but everyone is going to work on versions of oats, water and salt.

While other fashionably healthy breakfast notions have come and gone - spirulina smoothie, anyone? - one of the oldest and most pragmatic dishes has metamorphosed into the morning meal of the moment, eaten by pop stars and politicians, suits and surfers, models on castings and actors on film sets, schoolchildren and ladies who breakfast (lunch, in the wake of expenses cutbacks, just doesn't hack it these days).

Madonna, Nelson Mandela, Nigella Lawson, Nicole Kidman and Bill Gates are among those said to eat it every morning for breakfast.

Even Kate Moss features in their ranks, although I have trouble picturing her stirring a pot of oats at the hob. Maybe she gets the instant stuff.

At the Wolseley, an ornate temple to breakfast in central London, the first morning rush at 6am is for porridge, served in traditional, high-sided bowls. "It is, dare I say it, the VIPs, the businessmen, who are very regular clients who come all the time who order porridge," says head chef Julian O'Neill. "They eat out so often they know they need something healthy." Some request the unmanly soya milk, though I detect a tiny note of disdain when O'Neill tells me this.

Brought up on cornflakes and sliced white bread, I used to think of porridge as the vile, stomach-churning runny snot of elderly slugs. The very thought of this lumpy slurry was repulsive.

I changed my mind on a work trip to a fashionably tortuous boot camp in the hills north of Malibu five years ago, the kind of place frequented by Hollywood film stars seeking rapid weight loss.

The near-starvation diet consisted mostly of miniscule ceramic dishes of porridge, which we were allowed to eat with chopsticks (to prevent gorging). Hungry and homesick as we were, porridge suddenly seemed like a fine delicacy - almost as delicious as a wodge of cake - and I've eaten it most mornings since.

Its resurgence can be dated back six years to the launch of the GI diet in America, which argues that food like porridge keeps blood-glucose levels low and is the key to avoiding binge-eating. Since then it's been talked about as a kind of heroic superfood, able to do everything from vacuum up cholesterol, boost testosterone levels, fend off heart disease, suppress the appetite and beat depression.

Amounting to a mere 715kj, a bowl of porridge can keep you going without snacks until lunchtime (or precisely four hours and 21 minutes, according to the website of Quaker Oats, a 109-year-old American food conglomerate.) A report from the United States last year even suggested that the humble oat can increase intelligence in small children.

I travel up to the village hall of Carrbridge in the shadow of the Scottish Cairngorms, where porridge-makers from as far away as the US and Canada have flown in to compete in the annual world porridge-making championships. It's a surreal event, part Master Chef, part Vicar of Dibley in tartan, but the business of porridge is taken very seriously indeed.

Contestants cook their own recipes, including braised pigeon with porridge (not recommended) and a porridge spotted dick, with spices and dried fruit (surprisingly delicious). This is made by a bonny young woman who, she tells me, eats porridge three times a day. Occasionally her boyfriend is allowed toast.

I'm joined by one of the competitors, Camilla Barnard, who along with her husband Nick set up Rude Health breakfast cereals at their kitchen table in Wandsworth, just out of London, in 2005. Barnard is competing with her recipe for knickerbocker banana porridge, a vaguely healthy concoction if you ignore the flambeed banana and the Cointreau.

Barnard is not your cliched hippie type - she used to work at a corporate job in the city, her husband flies stunt planes for a hobby - but she was galvanised by the fact that she could not find delicious yet healthy breakfast cereal.

"I felt passionately," she says, "that breakfast needn't be dreary gruel; that there was a way to make porridge into something delicious, and that it is something everyone can make." Barnard argues that people all too often sleepwalk down the cereal aisle of the supermarket.

Four years later, their £4000 ($8980) start-up investment is now turning over in the region of £1.5 million and fans of their cheeky packaging and flavours like Top Banana and Fruity Date include Elizabeth Hurley.

If you're a recent convert, beware the porridge pedants. Rather like driving, everyone, it seems, thinks that their way of making porridge is best. Pinhead oats or rolled? Steel-cut or roasted? A dash of salt or a pinch of sugar?

Purists take the austere route favoured by the Scots - oatmeal, water, salt, preferably stirred in a clockwise direction with a wooden implement called a "spurtle".

Henry Dimbleby is one of the co-founders of Leon, a healthy fast-food chain which gets through about a tonne of porridge a week. They have served porridge since Leon's launch and have been followed by many high-street fast-food chains including McDonald's and Starbucks.

At Leon, the first job of each day is to start the porridge - a traditional mixture of oats, water and salt - which they cook on a very low heat in baking trays. Dimbleby recalls childhood holidays in Scotland where the porridge was made in the Aga overnight.

"In the morning the leftovers would be put into a drawer and allowed to set," he remembers. "In the afternoon the contents would be turned out - shiny slices of cold porridge, perfect for the afternoon walk."

The alternative is posh porridge. At the casually stylish eatery Modern Pantry, in east London, I'm served jumbo rolled oats in a moat of cream with crunchy dark muscovado sugar scattered on top, the swirl of dark sugar contrasting with the off-white puddle of cream. It's so soothing it has quite possibly the opposite effect that it's meant to, and I long to return to bed and watch Nora Ephron films back-to-back.

The Modern Pantry is not the first restaurant to cotton on to the fact that staying open for breakfast every day of the week is a way to make money in the recession (and the mark-up on a bowl of porridge, however luxurious, must be huge). In the same way that the sign of any good chef is their risotto, British restaurant cooks seem to be experimenting with how to sex up oats (many tell me that they eat porridge all day long - it's the perfect way to survive long days in a gruelling kitchen).

At Ottolenghi in north London, porridge is a recent addition to the menu. They serve it with roasted nuts, maple syrup and fresh blackberries for a little bit of tartness. It's been such a success they've started cooking it up for smart breakfast meetings.

But the poshest porridge I come across is at The Providores, co-owned by expat Kiwi chef Peter Gordon. He tells me that the recipe - a mixture of brown rice, stewed apple, maple syrup, soya milk and white miso - is lusted after by the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal and Kirsten Dunst.

For a while they took it off the menu but they received so many complaints they had to put it back on. This is £7 porridge so post-modern it doesn't even include oats - but they call it porridge, nevertheless. Clearly, they know when they're on to a good thing.

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