‘Good English Porridge?”

Today we are still in Northwest Scotland where the characters in my current WIP are involved in a scene that has ‘good English porridge’ at the center and around which all the action revolves. The minute my Scottish hero’s disapproving English step-mother insisted on feeding him a ‘good English porridge,’ I had to know what the difference was. (By the way, the step-mom is a terrible cook so her ‘good English porridge’ is actually pretty bad. My apologies to English cooks everywhere, but I am writing fiction.)

ScottishPORRIDGEAfter a review of several websites, I probably know more about porridge than I could ever want to know. Nonetheless for your benefit and that of my characters let me share what I learned.

First, for those travelers who might imagine I’m writing about oatmeal allow me to clarify. Porridge and oatmeal are not exactly the same thing. Oatmeal is a porridge made from oat grain. Porridge is made from any type of cooked cereal grain. Thus in Northern Scotland during the late 13th century—the time when the book is set—barley is the most likely form of porridge since that grain was the most easily grown in highland soils. Oats are a close second in Scotland and much more likely in England where arable land is more plentiful. Fortunately the scene I’m writing doesn’t require that I specify which grain is used. However, the differences noted above would imply that the step-mother’s offering would be made from oats, whereas a Scottish porridge during this time might well be made from barley or a mixture of available grains. You can read more about this at http://www.buzzle.com/articles/porridge-vs-oatmeal.html.

Also please note that porridge need not be breakfast food. This highly useful dish could be and was served at nearly every time of day with various sweet or savory additions depending on what meal was being served and what sort of flavor was desired. In fact the Castles and Manors website http://www.castlesandmanorhouses.com/life_04_food.htm#cerials says, “Another common sight at the medieval dinner table was the frumenty, a thick wheat porridge often boiled in a meat broth and seasoned with spices. Porridges were also made of every type of grain and could be served as desserts or dishes for the sick, if boiled in milk (or almond milk) and sweetened with sugar.”

Last I went to http://www.scottish-at-heart.com/porridge-recipe.html in search of ‘porridge trivia’

  • Traditionally, porridge is stirred with a wooden rod called a ‘Spirtle’ or ‘Spurtle’, which looks a bit like a drumstick (not the chicken variety!)
  • Superstition has it that Scottish porridge should always be stirred clockwise – and preferably with your right hand – otherwise the Devil will come for the person doing the stirring!
  • Porridge is traditionally served in wooden bowls, and eaten standing up. Each spoonful should be dipped in a bowl of cream that’s shared by everyone at the table
  • Porridge could well have been the worlds’ first ‘take-out’. Centuries ago, an authentic porridge recipe such as this one would be used to cook up a big pot and what wasn’t eaten for breakfast would be poured into ‘drawers’ or another container and allowed to cool.  Once it was cooled, the porridge could be cut up into slices or blocks, wrapped, and taken along on the days’ work to be eaten for lunch, dinner or a snack!

The humble porridge has even been immortalized in print! The famous Scottish Bard, Robert Burns, described it this way… “But now the supper crowns their simple board, the halesome parritch, chief of Scotias’ food.”

For an excellent discussion of modern oat porridge preparation visit http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/nov/10/how-to-cook-perfect-porridge

Do you have a porridge story or recipe you’d like to share with your fellow travelers? Can you identify the building in the featured picture of this post? Please leave a comment and share, this blog is for all who read romances or love to travel.