In general, porridge means any grain (or other vegetable parts) boiled to a mush. It has been eaten for thousands of years and can include rice porridge (congee in Asia), polenta (solidified maize porridge), frumenty (more on which below), semolina dishes and, in the English speaking world, Germany and Nordic countries, oat porridge, which is what we are concerned with here.
Oats and Scotland
While remains of oatmeal porridge have been found in the 5,000 year old bog-preserved bodies of Neolithic humans in Central Europe and Scandinavia, oats only came to Scotland relatively ‘recently’, around 600 CE.
Scottish soldiers were recorded as carrying sacks of oats with them to make oatcakes on the march in the fourteenth century. And Samuel Johnson’s 1775 dictionary entry for oats was: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” (On which Lord Elibank commented, “Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?”)
There was a good reason why oats were eaten more in Scotland than England: the crop was much better suited to colder, wetter conditions than wheat.
Traditions developed around porridge in Scotland. It was customary to eat it standing up, for example. One story claims this originated during Scotland’s clan wars. You wanted to be standing with your back to a wall eating your porridge in the morning if the enemy were to burst into your house, not sitting down at a table.
Another Scottish practice was filling the porridge drawer. You would pour left-over porridge into this and after it set it could be cut into chunks and taken to work or school for lunches. Or eaten cold for breakfast the next day to save fuel in cooking. Even frying it was an option (here’s a recipe). I do remember when I was at primary school an Irish girl bringing porridge sandwiches for lunch. Urk!
And you had to take care which way you stirred your porridge. Folklore held that going anti-clockwise might invoke the devil.
History of Porridge in New Zealand
It is not clear whether the first Europeans to visit New Zealand in 1642 brought porridge with them, for Abel Tasman’s journals have little to say about food on board his ships. But it is possible that the men on James Cook’s Endeavour were (or had been) eating the stuff when they arrived in 1769. Cook’s expedition was a naval one and the menu on British navy ships of the time included oat porridge on the three days a week that salted beef or pork was not served. About 225kg of oatmeal was loaded on the ship when it left England, but this wouldn’t have gone very far if served to all 95 or so men thrice weekly for the duration of the three year voyage.
However, on Cook’s second voyage in the Resolution, with twice as much rolled oats for only a slightly larger crew, he explicitly mentions in his 2 May 1772 journal entry that the food ration included “as much cooked oats or wheat as [the men] can eat” on Mondays.
Cooked wheat porridge was apparently eaten by Māori and probably Pākehā in the 1830s as it was quicker and easier to make than bread. It was known as stirabout, an Irish or Scottish term for oatmeal porridge, or by the Māori term kororidori, which also refers to stirring.
The first reference to porridge in New Zealand newspapers appears to be in the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle of 10 June 1843. In long article titled ‘Hints to Labourers’ the writer advises that porridge “Is indeed a healthy food, and the cottager who seeks to support his wife an children both frugally and healthfully should never be without it.” Cooking instructions are given, as well as suggestions on how to eat it: “It may then be eaten with a little treacle, or with a piece of butter put in the centre; but the better way is to eat it with cold milk, taking a spoonful of the stirabout with a mouthful of milk.” This last method was another Scottish tradition, with a bowl of hot porridge placed next to one of cold milk and eating by dipping the spoon in one after the other.
Brett’s Colonists Guide of 1883 – an ‘Encyclopedia of useful knowledge’ that covered everything from clearing land, managing livestock, growing fruit, bee keeping and first aid through to government laws, as well as cooking – had a section on porridge. It suggested that, “Porridge is an excellent and cheap food for children, and makes also a capital breakfast or supper for grown people, supposing them to have a more solid meal at mid-day.”
Instructions for making porridge included soaking oatmeal for several hours, then stirring it into boiling water and allowing the mixture to boil for 25 minutes. Stirabout was made by the different approach of directly pouring oatmeal into boiling water. Brose was a variant made by pouring boiling water on oatmeal and stirring until thick. And finally, there was budram, an oat jelly made by soaking oatmeal in water for several days until fermented and then pouring off the water, boiling it, and letting it cool.
The 20th Century: From Oatmeal to Rolled Oats
Early colonists in New Zealand often ate bread and meat for breakfast, but by 1900 oatmeal porridge was the core of most people’s breakfasts. However, rolled oats, made by squashing the grain between rollers, was available from 1889. This may have been an imported product at first, but Flemings were making the stuff in their Gore mill from about 1906. They called it Creamoata because, they claimed, it was creamy. There may be something in this, for oatmeal is sort of like a paste when cooked, while with rolled oats the flakes swell up and are supported in something more like a creamy gel.
In 1915 the advertising agency Chandler and Co created Sargeant Dan, a sort of cross between a boy scout and a child soldier, to promote Creamoata and he went on to become an iconic Kiwi brand right up until about 1965. Dan’s appearance changed over the years, but he always suggested pluck and resilience.
Flemings claimed that Creamoata was the national breakfast and there may have been something in this to begin with, but another contender would be Wheetbix, introduced in the 1920s. Over time, cold cereals like cornflakes, rice bubbles and wheat flakes began to supplant porridge. One writer has suggested this can be linked to family eating habits: when families ate together, porridge could be cooked up and dished out to everyone. When breakfast was no longer a group sit-down affair, and family members just grabbed their own when it suited, then pouring something out of a packet was so much more convenient.
Flemings eventually closed down (in 2006) and now Harraways is the only company processing oats in New Zealand. It is kept in business by the growth in popularity of muesli, muesli bars and instant oat sachets, which contain finely chopped rolled oats. You won’t find oatmeal on the shelves any more but porridge is still being eaten.
Making Oat Porridge
The Scottish recipe for porridge insists on only three ingredients: oats, water and salt. But many people use 50:50 milk and water for a richer version and some pre-soak the oats overnight to reduce cooking time. Salt should be added at the end as it will prevent the oats swelling if added at the start. Porridge is commonly made in the microwave today, but this can easily create a big mess if it boils over, and it is certainly not likely to be as consistent in texture as that made in a pot.
There are three or four types of oat porridge you can make: with oat meal for a fine, almost paste-like dish; with rolled oats (either whole grain or cut) for something with more texture; and using steel-cut (aka pinhead) oats, where the grains are simply cut into chunks for the coarsest variety of porridge. Some say that as rolled oats are made by pre-cooking they have some of the goodness taken out of them. Whatever the case, it seems well established that the oat bran in oats reduces cholesterol in the bloodstream by a small amount, more so for those with high cholesterol to start with. So porridge is good for you.
Purists make porridge from steel-cut oats, but Jamie Oliver reckons that boiling large, coarse oat flakes (jumbo oats) for 15 minutes is the way to go. I would add that for either steel cut or jumbo oats the best way is to bring to the boil the night before and let soak. You should then only need to cook for a few minutes in the morning.
World’s Best Porridge
If you think your porridge is top notch, you could consider entering in the Golden Spurtle Porridge Championships held every year in the Scottish Highlands. Note that porridge made from rolled oats is not considered real porridge here and is ineligible. (A spurtle, in case you were wondering, is a porridge stirring stick. Experts say this is better than a spoon because you can break up lumps with it, though I think that if you have lumps then you have been careless at the outset).
Spicing it Up
Porridge is of course a very plain dish – as plain as they come really – so people often serve it with cream and brown sugar or honey. More healthy options are cooking it with dried fruit, or chopped up apple, bananas and so on. Or with coconut shred. And you can sprinkle the top with nuts, granola, or fruit. Mixing other grains in with the oats, or seeds like chia or linseed that release soluble fibre on cooking, is a further way to expand porridge. The BBC has some interesting recipes covering all these variants.
Frumenty: A Forgotten Tradition
Frumenty is a porridge variant that is usually made from cracked wheat and includes dried fruit such as currants or raisins. It could be eaten as a peasant staple when plain, or as a special dish on religious festivals when more elaborately prepared. I rather like it, so have made a special page on frumenty.
Porridge often goes off menus in summer, so some of the dishes below may only be available in the colder months. Besides the places I’ve reviewed to date others you could try (in season) include Ohtel, Home, Arabica, Pickle & Pie (‘grits’), Fix & Fogg, Charley Noble, Southern Cross, Maranui, Floriditas, Chameleon, and Prefab (steel cut oats). And if you are in Christchurch, there is a food stall called Posh Porridge at the Saturday Farmers Market and in pop-up locations on some other days that is very popular apparently. The photographs look amazing. Also, the news site Stuff reviewed the porridge at five Christchurch eateries in 2018.