The Darina Allen Column

Let’s hear it for oats! Darina shares her love of one of Ireland’s simplest, most nourishing and most versatile foods.  

Virtually every food writer and journalist who stays at Ballymaloe House raves about the porridge that they serve for breakfast with a generous drizzle of Jersey cream and a sprinkling of soft brown Barbados sugar. It's not just any old porridge – it's Macroom oatmeal, lovingly kiln roasted and milled by Donal Creedon at Walton's Mill, the last surviving stone mill in Ireland. The mill has been in the same family since the 1700's. Donal, the great, great, great, great grandson of founder, Richard Walton, carefully and respectfully carries on the tradition.

The porridge is sold in the same distinctive red, white and yellow bags – which is somehow reassuring. The oats are gently toasted for up to two days on cast iron plates to give the oatmeal the distinctive toasted flavour we all love. October 10th was World Porridge Day, and it provided us with a good opportunity to remind ourselves of this inexpensive super food which comes to us in many variations – it's basically one of the great convenience foods of the world.

Long gone are the days of gruel and watery porridge.... So if you are convinced oatmeal is just for breakfast – think again! The texture is deliciously chunky and packed with flavour. It is steel cut, or what many refer to as pinhead oatmeal, which takes considerably longer to cook. Jumbo rolled oats and 'speedie cook' rolled oats, are also delicious. Oatmeal is not just for breakfast porridge, biscuits and granola. It's also brilliant in savoury dishes such as savoury porridge with greens.

A past student Alex Hely-Hutchinson, opened a restaurant in London called 26 Grains. The 8 or 9 different types of porridge on their menu, both sweet and savoury have customers queuing every day. 26 Grains was probably inspired by GrØd the porridge paradise in Copenhagen, opened in 2011 in a basement on Jaegerborggade, at that time a distinctively dodgy street with appealingly low rent. Now there are several branches and a GrØd cookbook. They were pretty much 'skint' when they opened but managed to afford to buy some oats to make bowls of hot steaming porridge – the rest is history...a huge success story! The menu now includes other comforting food like risotto, dahl and congee and there are branches all over Denmark.

Oatmeal has a long and fascinating history. It has been grown in Ireland since medieval times, our humid, wet climate suits it. There are many historical references and a wealth of archaeological evidence. Oats were used in gruel, porridges, flatbreads and, by all accounts, a not very good beer! The straw and chaff were used in the manufacture of floor covering, baskets, hen roosts and bedding. But back to the kitchen.

To use that much overused term, they are definitely a 'super food'. Oats are packed with protein, high in soluble fibre, which helps to lower cholesterol and you'll have noticed that you don't feel like reaching for a doughnut at eleven if you have a bowl of porridge for breakfast. Apart from the fibre content, which is good for your gut and helps to prevent constipation, it is super filling and satisfying and boosts our energy levels. Oats also contain a wide range of nutrients, vitamin E, essential fatty acids and, if you are to believe all the research, helps to prevent cardiovascular disease by lowering your bad LDL cholesterol without affecting the good cholesterol. The high fibre and complex carbs help to stabilise the blood sugar according to the American Cancer Society. The lignans in oats helps to reduce hormone related cancers.

Up to relatively recently I was a Jersey cream and soft dark brown sugar devotee but I've become much more adventurous (led by my grandchildren and the Ballymaloe Cookery School students example). Think peanut butter and banana, walnuts, blueberries and maple syrup, or honey, roast almonds, dates and almond butter (it's all about what you sprinkle on top). Stewed apple or compote with cinnamon. I draw the line at white or dark chocolate chips but suspect that's a generational thing.


Macroom Oatmeal Porridge
Virtually every morning in winter I start my day with a bowl of porridge. Search out Macroom stoneground oatmeal which has the most delicious toasted nutty flavour. It comes in a lovely old-fashioned red and yellow pack, which I hope they never change. Serves 4
155g (5½ oz) Macroom oatmeal
5 cups (1.2 litres/ 2 pints) water
1 level teaspoon salt
Obligatory accompaniment! - Soft brown sugar

Bring 5 cups of water to the boil, sprinkle in the oatmeal, gradually stirring all the time. Put on a low heat and stir until the water comes to the boil.
Cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the salt and stir again. Serve with single cream or milk and soft brown sugar melting over the top.
Left over porridge can be stored in a covered container in the fridge – it will reheat perfectly the next day.
Note: If the porridge is waiting, keep it covered otherwise it will form a skin which is difficult to dissolve.

Savoury Porridge with Greens
Serves 1
1 clove garlic grated or crushed
Ginger – grated or crushed
Extra virgin olive oil
Fist of greens – kale, chard, spinach, bok choi, mustard or a mixture
A dash of tamari
Pinch chilli flakes – optional
Sesame seeds
Fried egg – optional

First make the porridge.
Heat the oil in a pan. Add the grated garlic and ginger, stir for a couple of seconds, add the chopped or torn greens. Toss until they wilt, add a few chilli flakes, a dash of tamari (careful, it is easy to make it too salty). Taste. Pile on top of the hot porridge. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and even a fried egg if you fancy it and enjoy!

Rachel Allen's Chewy Seedy Oat and Apricot Bars
Makes about 36 squares
300g (10oz) porridge oats
100g (3 1/2oz) pumpkin or sunflower seeds, or a mixture of the two
50g (2oz) desiccated coconut
50g (2ozcup) plain flour
200g (7oz) butter
200g (7oz) golden syrup
150g (5ozup) soft brown sugar
150g (5oz) cranberries or dried apricots, chopped
125g (4 1/2oz) crunchy peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3.
Line a 23 x 23cm (9 x 9 inch) square cake tin with non-stick baking parchment, leaving a little hanging over the edges for easy removal later.
Place the oats, seeds, coconut and flour in a large bowl and mix together. Melt the butter and golden syrup together in a saucepan, then mix in the sugar, chopped apricots, peanut butter and vanilla extract. Pour into the bowl of dry ingredients and mix until evenly combined.
Press this mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 30 – 40 minutes, or until golden and slightly firm. Allow to cool in the tin, then remove, still in the paper, and cut into 36 small squares (or cut them depending on whatever size you want them to be). Store in an air-tight container for up to 1 week. These will also freeze well.

JR Ryall's Oatmeal Biscuits
These are the delicious heart-shaped oatmeal pastry biscuits that JR Ryall, of Ballymaloe House Sweet Trolley fame, serves for afternoon tea.
Makes 20-25 approximately
100g (4oz) butter
62g (2 1/2oz) caster sugar
150g (5oz) Flahavan's porridge oats
50g (2oz) flour
Pinch baking powder
Pinch of salt
Extra caster sugar to sprinkle

Mix the dry ingredients together. Rub in the butter. Press the mixture together to form a dough. This dough is quite brittle and can be tricky to handle. Roll out to 3mm thick, cut into heart shapes and transfer to a lined baking tray. Egg wash each biscuit and sprinkle with caster sugar.
Bake in the preheated oven at 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3, for 15 minutes or until golden.
Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container.

Sue's Oatmeal Bread
This recipe surprised me from the start. When Sue Cullinane, one of our great teachers at Ballymaloe told me about this simple bread made from oats, yoghurt and a couple of other ingredients I was not so sure. I was even less sure the first time I tried making it myself as I tipped the heavy dense dough into the tin. But hey presto, after 1 hour in the oven I realised I had a gorgeously nutty and nutritious loaf, not dissimilar to a great brown soda bread.

425g (15oz) rolled oats (not jumbo or pinhead)
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons bread soda, sifted
2 tablespoons mixed seeds
1 egg
500g (18oz) natural yoghurt
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.
Line the base of a 900g (2lb) loaf tin with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, mix the oats, salt, sifted bread soda and the mixed seeds. Make a well in the centre.
Whisk the egg into the yoghurt. Pour the yoghurt and egg mixture into the dry ingredients and mix well. The dough is meant to be dry and sticky at this stage, so don't worry.
Scoop the dough into the tin and bake for 50 minutes. Turn out of the loaf tin and bake for a further 10 minutes. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Fermanagh Black Bacon
Have you ever tasted Pat O'Doherty's free range rashers from his pigs reared on Inishcorkish Island, I bought some on a recent visit to his shop in Enniskillen and loved it. Also loved seeing old Fermanagh boxty for sale in his butcher shop on Belmore Street

Plant a Currant Bush for future pies...
Gooseberries and blackcurrants are difficult or impossible to find in a supermarket so now is the time to wander over to your local garden centre – choose a few black currant and gooseberry bushes. There are numerous varieties but we love Ben Gairn, Ben Connan, Ben Hope and Ben More varieties of blackcurrants and Careless, Invicta and Greenfich varieties of gooseberries. If you haven't already got some rhubarb in your garden – ask for Early Timperley. Feed it well and you'll have lots of red spears for pies and tarts year after year.

Oat Nerds
Pure oat nerds, and there certainly are many in London and elsewhere, may want to know that Leila's shop in Shoreditch sells an oat grinder for those who want to freshly grind whole oat grains – you might snigger at the thought, but the flavour and not to mention the nutrient level is so worth the extra few minutes it takes.


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