I'm not a porridge virgin, but, like many, my first experience with it was cruel. It was not something worth repeating. In fact, the beauty of growing up was largely the opportunity to leave things like porridge – and, well, knee socks – behind. My mother had good intentions, sure. She smiled as she served it up as a defence against Montreal winters. But porridge back then was lumpy and glue-like. I may have fed some to the dog.
But now, porridge is back. And not just that – it has gone posh. It features on five-star menus everywhere – among others, at the Four Season Hotel chain, the Hazelton Hotel in Toronto and at Los Angeles's Beverly Hills Hotel, where it is described as "steel-cut Irish oatmeal with spiced heirloom apple-raisin compote and brown sugar." Nutritionists extol its virtues, a whole unaltered soluble-fibre grain that sops up cholesterol, delivers protein, fibre and essential vitamins and, perhaps best of all, controls appetite by filling you up with low-calorie fuel (171 a bowl) that burns nicely for hours – four hours and 21 minutes according to the Quaker Oats website. In Britain, a recent market report from Mintel revealed that almost a quarter of the population eat it every day and that annual sales of hot cereal have doubled in the last five years.
Celebrities, too, have gone porridge-y. Madonna, Nigella Lawson, Kate Moss, Nicole Kidman – they all swear by it, an ancient superhero of a morning meal.
So I decided to try it again. I would attempt to transcend my childhood porridge memories, and be enlightened. In London, I went to The Wolseley, a temple to the Power Breakfast, and there, in a sea of pinstripes and pocket squares, I ordered a bowl of porridge (approximately $13). It was not lumpy. The accoutrements of berries and a dollop of yogurt helped. But I felt like I was performing a duty. I faked pleasure and wished I had ordered an egg.
A few days later, I headed to Nopi in Mayfair, a restaurant run by Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born celebrity chef and cookbook author. His posh porridge (about $15) is made of black rice. It arrives, and you think that you are about to eat watery tar. A few banana slices and chunks of mango dress it up. Little pots of coconut milk and sweet syrup accompany the dish – to be added according to individual taste. I smiled. I sampled. I grimaced. The porridge was a disappointing shock. I felt like a latter-day Goldilocks. It was too sweet, too cold and too soupy.
Part of the challenge, I realized, is that breakfast is an emotionally rich meal. We have expectations. We pull ourselves from our beds, half-asleep, and plonk down at the table, unkempt (often) and needy after a night of subconscious (or wakeful) processing. It is a meal we mostly consume at home. And we share it with people we're most intimate with – parents when we're young, a partner when we're older, our own children. And maybe because of that, breakfast is a peculiarly individual sacrament, not an elaborate display. That's what dinner is.
Dinner celebrates – or makes amends for – the events of the day, depending on what transpired. Breakfast has no such ambition. It is as innocent as the day that stretches out before it. And yet we know its importance. It is meek and powerful all at the same time.
This revelation came in the wake of my pilgrimage for posh porridge. I had gone to restaurants, and while I left glowing with warm fuel like a radioactive weapon, I was not completely satisfied. In Scotland – where they consider porridge their national food – I got a little closer to the nutritional and emotional comfort I craved. At The Edinburgh Larder, the porridge was simple and creamy – made from organic oats and served with Scottish whole milk. You could see the owner cooking a pot of the stuff with a spurtle – the special implement, like a drumstick, that the Scots created for porridge stirring. We sat at an old wooden kitchen table. When he served it, he explained how to make it perfectly: Let the oats soak in hot water for a bit, add warm milk, put on the stove, never let the milk boil, add a pinch of salt.
But it was only at my last stop, in the London home of Nick and Camilla Barnard, that I understood the true value of porridge. In 2005, they co-founded Rude Health, an organic food company, first with a muesli and later expanding to porridge, a specialty version of which (Fruity Date Porridge) won the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championships this year, a prestigious competition held annually in Scotland. Neither had worked in the food industry. She worked in marketing. And he flies stunt planes and writes books on ancient Indian textiles, Persian kilims and home decorating. They simply thought they could make a difference.
"Oats are not a commodity. They are closer to wild grass than wheat," Nick told me, as he prepared two samples of porridge (one regular, the other Fruity Date) in their kitchen. Oats were used mostly for animal feed until it was discovered (in the mid-1840s) that if they were steamed and rolled, a thinner flake could be produced which made it palatable for human consumption.
"Porridge-making is like barbecuing but for more sensitive men," he offered. The ritual is part of how he starts each day. As a condiment, he put out a small dish of Hurdlebrook cream, made from Guernsey cows in Somerset. The traditional porridge was delicious and comforting – like a cozy duvet in a bowl. And the Fruity Date was even better, just as comforting but more interesting, like having a conversation with some New Age guru who offers soothing insights as well as a few bits to chew on.
It was the atmosphere of the warm kitchen that enhanced the porridge eating. A thick English mist hung in the air outside.
And at the end, they gave me samples. Which meant that the next morning, I could stand in my nightie and slippers and cook up some for my loved ones in the intimacy of another dawn.
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