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Porridge - but not as you know it

Bowl of porridge with fruit and nuts

Porridge's exact origins have "been lost in the mists of time", but new flavours, different grains and its nutritional benefits have catapulted it into a modern healthy breakfast staple.

The simplicity of porridge is also its beauty.

There are few foods that can be made as easily as a bowl of water mixed with oats, perhaps with a sprinkle of salt (the traditionally Scottish way) or sugar.

Or that can be transformed with the addition of berries or fruit, spices, nuts, honey, syrups, milk, cream or even booze.

Couple this with its healthy appeal, and sales of oats and ready-made porridge in the UK are skyrocketing.

Stirring stuff:

Porridge with berries

Sample sweet porridge with a whisky kick

Add apples, raisins and coconut

Could you stomach snail porridge?

Make a Swedish version with leaves and moss

However aficionado John Boa's attempts at blending flavours in the annual World Porridge Championships in Carrbridge, in the Scottish Highlands have not always been successful.

"Keeping it simple is my philosophy when it comes to the speciality section," he says.

"The first year [I added] beer and nuts and called it my all day porridge. It didn't go down at all well."

With wooden stirring tools known as spurtles at the ready, enthusiastic cooks from as far afield as Sweden and America must prepare their porridge using oatmeal, water and salt, with the option to add flavours in a speciality section.

John Boa, is a previous winner of the coveted golden spurtle prize, and in 2012 his honeyed hazelnut porridge swirl won the people's choice award.

This year he is entering his recipe for a toffee sauce and nut version at the 20th annual competition.

The interest in porridge is not confined to a few die-hard enthusiasts in the Highlands.

In fact 49% of people in the UK eat porridge, according to market research firm Mintel, with 23% of people eating it daily.

It says sales of hot cereals - largely made up of porridge - have almost doubled since 2008, hitting £241m in 2013, and volume sales rising by 25% to 81 million kg.

Cafe chain Pret A Manger's sales of hot pots have doubled since it began selling them in 2010, and it now sells more than 60,000 each week.

Why the increase in popularity? It could be put down to successive cold winters or a growing awareness of porridge's nutritional value.

Heidi Lanschuetzer, food and drinks analyst at Mintel says: "While porridge has found a way to tap into the out of home breakfast occasion, the segment has also benefited from oats' inherent health benefits, notably the fact that they can lower cholesterol, as well as their widely held associations with satiety - a factor which is of particular importance when it comes to buying breakfast cereals."

Oats, which form the basis of traditional porridge are often called a "superfood" because of the many nutrients they contain.

Oats are a wholegrain product, rather than a refined one says Dr Frank Thies of the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health.

"If you compare that with white bread, wholemeal bread contains lots of good vital chemicals, nutrients and vitamins that are removed from the grain when you process the flour to make white bread.

"Like any other wholegrain product, oats are very good for you."

Oats contain protein, magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium, Vitamin E, and Vitamin B, and have no sodium or cholesterol.

Granular differences:

Oat is a cereal grown for its grain, which has a tough outer shell that is removed before eating.

Groats are the hulled whole grains which contain the three key parts of a cereal - the germ, fibrous bran and the endosperm.

Rolled oats are groats that have been rolled into flakes, steamed and toasted.

Oatmeal is made from ground-up groats, or is another name used to describe porridge.

Oatbran is just the nutrient-rich bran part of the oat, often produced as a by-product of milling.

In addition, they contain large amounts of soluble fibre including beta-glucan, which is known to lower cholesterol.

Professor Derek Stewart, from the James Hutton Institute, says in Britain's Favourite Supermarket Foods porridge is "outstanding".

"Beta-glucan is soluble dietary fibre - beta-glucan dissolves the water and forms a gloopy thick mass," he says.

This can help the stomach feel fuller, for longer - but does it actually suppress appetite and prevent snacking?

Dr Thies advises that studies are still ongoing.

"We don't know if it's due to the effects of food or just because you have a [full] feeling in your stomach due to the viscosity of the material.

"More research is needed, but it might be the case that oats affect the signal telling your body that it should stop eating," says Dr Thies.

Dr Izhat Khan, a consultant with NHS Scotland is competing in the World Porridge Championships for the first time.

He regularly extols its benefits to diabetic patients who must control levels of glucose in their blood (glycaemia).

"Oatmeal offers very good glycaemic control," says Dr Khan. "If you have a bowl of porridge in the morning then you do not have the craving for elevenses and you avoid the snacks that can be quite unhealthy.

International variations:

Chinese chicken rice porridge

Congee: Rice porridge popular in Asia where regional variations see it combined with seafood, meat, vegetables and spices

Laba porridge: Traditional Chinese dish made with millet

Burbura: Sweet Middle Eastern porridge with wheat, nuts, spices

Barley porridge: Popular in Scandinavia

Genfo: Thick African barley porridge often served with butter or berbere (a mixture of spices such as chilli and ginger)

"There are no big insulin surges and you have satiety that lasts until lunchtime."

For those on a gluten-free diet a daily bowl of oat porridge may not be an option, though some gluten-free brands are on sale.

Pure oatmeal does not contain gluten, but can often be contaminated with wheat or barley during factory production.

However "pseudo-cereals", plants that produce grains such as amaranth or buckwheat, can be substituted for oats in a dish of porridge.

Oats form the basis of what we think of as traditional porridge in Britain but many other countries can also lay claim to the name, albeit with variations.

"[Claiming porridge as their own] is a pretty clever trick that the Scots have pulled off," says Guthrie Hutton, author of A Bowl of Porridge.

"They have managed to get oatmeal porridge recognised as the one true porridge and to have it identified with Scotland. [But] people make porridge using different grains in different countries around the world."

Varieties of porridge made with ingredients other than oats have been eaten around the globe for thousands of years.

Porridge protocols:

  • Stir porridge clockwise; stirring anti-clockwise is liable to stir up the devil
  • Always eat porridge standing up because "a staunin sack fills the fu'est" (a standing sack fills the fullest)

Source: A Bowl of Porridge, Guthrie Hutton

Quinoa has been used in porridge for more than 3,000 years while in China, according to legend, rice porridge or congee has been eaten since 2500BC.

According to Mr Hutton, oats have been a staple of the Scottish diet for so long their origins are "lost in the mists of time".

"The oat crop was brought into Scotland possibly even [as far back as] Roman times, nobody really quite knows when.

"It was derived from natural grasses that probably originated somewhere like the Middle East but found in the cold, wet climate of Scotland a fairly ideal habitat."

The important role of porridge in history was recently highlighted by academic Alistair Moffat, who claimed the invention of porridge changed the world.

He suggested that feeding youngsters porridge allowed mothers to stop breastfeeding earlier, freeing them to bear more children, in turn increasing the world's population.

Meanwhile some think that its health benefits could be exploited even more.

Heidi Lanschuetzer, from Mintel says: "Given that the usage of porridge stands at half of all Brits, the hot cereals segment still offers strong potential for future growth in areas such as vitamin or mineral fortification or flavour innovation."

At the World Porridge Championships, innovation is celebrated - and Dr Khan plans to introduce Eastern flavours.

"I'll be using cinnamon, cardamom seeds, ground, skinned almonds and pistachio for garnish," he says. "I'll be using French honey for the flavour."

Author Guthrie Hutton is more of a traditionalist, preferring his to be served with water and salt.

But he also recommends one other daily traditional taste of Scotland: "My recipe for long life is a bowl of porridge in the morning and a tot of whisky at night."

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