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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oh, to be in England, eating oatmeal!

The first time we went to London we stayed in the Hotel St. Ermin in St. James Park. It’s an Edwardian hotel with a lovely grand staircase, just right for making an entrance when one comes down to tea in the afternoon, and a tiny elevator (capacity 6 without luggage) for those times when you just can’t trudge another step.

Our package included the daily breakfast. Bill was in heaven. In case you don’t know, an “English” breakfast is roughly the equivalent of the American “Country” style breakfast. Eggs, toast, sausages, potatoes, bacon (not the same as American bacon but good), and other things such as fried bread, dripping toast, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, beans and porridge (oatmeal). This does not include the cereals – dry cereals, flakes, clusters, puffs, and things like shredded wheat, “Wheatabix”, oat cakes and other things served in a bowl with milk or cream.

On entering the dining room, we were shown to our table and asked if we preferred coffee or tea. Almost immediately a tray containing cup, saucer and pot of tea or coffee was presented along with a jug of milk. Also presented was a rack of toast – six slices of various toasted breads, cut in half and buttered, along with a pot of jam. This was just to get started.

I first went to the “buffet” to get a bowl of porridge. Yes, I know it’s oatmeal, but the porridge was nothing like the gloppy, gluey oatmeal we usually have when cooking whole oats, or the bland, texture less mass obtained by pouring boiling water over a packet of instant. This was porridge – real Goldilocks style porridge, neither too hot nor too cold but just right. Thick and creamy, warm and comforting, stuff that could convert a confirmed Yank into a full fledged Anglophile.

The porridge was self-serve. Arrayed on a small tray in front of the porridge pot was a jug of cream, thick as butter, and on alternate days a bottle of treacle or one of Golden Syrup. One morning there was a bottle of “American” (Maple) syrup on the tray and one cold, rainy morning, a tiny bottle of Scotch whiskey (The St. Ermin was a Scottish hotel).

After a bowl of delectable sustenance I went back for the rest of the meal. I usually chose bacon, maybe a sausage, potatoes and an egg cooked to order by the chef. A few mushrooms and maybe a grilled tomato and I was good for the day. That was the great thing – after a breakfast like that, I did not need another meal until late in the afternoon. Bill was good for at least two trips through the buffet line. He loves sausages in all their permutations and the variety offered pleased him greatly.

One morning, there was no porridge. I was crushed. Instead of the porridge pot the chef was making waffles in a waffle iron. I passed on the waffle but I missed my porridge. But the pot returned the next day. Before our stay ended I asked the chef how he cooked the porridge, explaining that I wanted to achieve its creamy texture at home. He warned me to use only steel cut oats (in America we often find rolled oats or old fashioned oats – not the same thing). He also told me to basically double the amount of liquid called for in the package instructions, and to replace half the water called for with milk. In a nutshell, here is how to make porridge.

Finding the oats is the first task. If you can find McCann’s steel cut oats that is a good place to start. Even better is Hamlyn’s “pinhead” oatmeal. The oats are even finer cut than McCann’s and make a creamier porridge. Even their instructions on the label are closer to what the hotel chef told me.

For each ¼ cup of oats use about 3/4 to one cup water and 3/4 to one cup milk. Add a bit of salt and cook over low heat until creamy and tender. Of course, you will experiment and find the amount of liquid and cooking time that suits you best. And here are some tricks to make the job easier, faster or better.

Try using a double boiler, or simply a bowl placed over a pan of simmering water. Put the oats and liquid in the bowl and cook until done.

Try toasting the oats before cooking. Spread them in a small skillet and cook over low heat for a few minutes, stirring, until they release a nutty fragrance. Continue as usual.

Soak them over night. Place the oats (toasted or not) and water in a pan or double boiler overnight. Next morning, add the milk and continue as usual.

Prepare them in a small crock pot. I have one that is meant for keeping hot dips and sauces hot. I place my oats, milk and water in the little pot and plug it in when I go to bed. Next morning my oats are done and ready to eat.

Serve them with milk, cream, brown sugar, granulated sugar, syrup, honey, jam or molasses. Some people still like a lump of butter on their oatmeal. I will not discourage you.

Leftovers can be reheated or stirred into soups, stews or bread dough! Be sure to sprinkle rolled oats over the top of your oatmeal bread loaves before baking!

Eating this oatmeal, or “porridge” can transport me back to St. James Square, to the Albert Pub in Victoria Street where Bill enjoyed watching the Chelsea Pensioner nursing his pint and where Bill himself sampled a small pork pie. Back to Covent Garden and Charing Cross Road, to the Garrick Theatre and the Army & Navy and to a tea shop in York. To the food halls in Harrod’s, the Underground (mind the gap) and Canterbury. I don’t eat porridge nearly often enough. Maybe I’ll have some this weekend.

Quotable Quotes; in the category Remember, I said this was a Scottish Hotel!

“Oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Samuel Johnson

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