Photo by The Bitten Word/Flickr CC
For a taste of history take note that the mill in which this Macroom oatmeal is made was built in the 1800s, back when the Cork Butter Exchange was near the height of its influence. And the way it's made isn't a whole lot different now than it was then. It's not hard to imagine that along with potatoes, porridge of this sort provided regular sustenance for farmers, millers and butter makers almost every day of their lives.
Back then most of them I'm sure ate it because, along with potatoes, it's what they had on hand. But today you and I can opt for Macroom oatmeal for pretty much every reason you could want: it's good for you, it tastes really great, it's traditional, it's slow food at its sweet and savory best. A big bowl of it, topped with plenty of good Irish butter, is as terrific today as it was then.
I first tasted Macroom oatmeal on that a trip to Ireland when I stayed at Ballymaloe House for the first time. Compared to the oatmeal I'd always been served--the same sort of commercial stuff most everyone else in America has had--porridge made from Macroom's toasted and stone-ground, totally traditional oaten meal is almost another product all together. Eating it for the first time is like taking a stroll in Paris, France, when all you've known is Paris, Texas. You taste the toastiness. You taste the oats--I only had to taste it once to know that I'd never go back to the commercial stuff.
It's been a standard on the breakfast menu at Ballymaloe House since they got going back in the 1960s. At the time I was there, it was one of the first of the traditional Irish foods that Myrtle Allen was generous enough to share with me. I liked it then, I love it now. It's one of those "steady as she goes" products that's just always really good: a good 15 years ago when we first got it; a good 15 minutes ago when I re-tasted it to inspire me to write this. It's good in the morning, of course. It's also exceptionally good for lunch or dinner as a savory dish.
From the last stone mill in Ireland, Macroom's oatmeal is radically better, I think, than any other oatmeal on the market. (Yes, the McCann's steel cut oats are also good, but I'm still very much in favor of these.) Seriously, this oatmeal is to Quaker what Farm Bread is to Brownberry.
The mill sits just a few blocks off the central square in the town of Macroom, which lies on the road from Cork City up to Killarney and County Kerry. Macroom is known in Ireland as a mill town and the Walton family has been actively engaged in milling work since the 1700s, when Richard Walton set his first pair of stones. Donal Creedon, who runs the mill today, is Richard's great-, great-, great-, great-grandson. "T'was my mother's people who built it," Donal told me very quietly, his accent making it seem quite mystical and mysterious. "It's been in the family since 1832, since it was built." Back then there were probably a dozen other similar mills at work in the town; today, Walton's is the only one remaining.
Donal is as dedicated to the mill and the integrity of its work as any of his ancestors. Probably in his early 40s, he has those healthy-looking, bright ruddy cheeks and ears that are so common in Irishmen living out in the country. About five-foot-ten, his shirt collar poking out over the top of his sweater, Donal's about as gentle and unprepossessing as you're going to get. He isn't out to change the world. The man just wants to make incredible oatmeal (or as the Irish refer to it far more romantically I think, "oaten meal"). And in his very quiet but determined way, that's exactly what he does.
The Creedons' home is just across the road from the mill, so after we tour the mill it's merely a matter of crossing the street to get a bit of refreshment and conversation. Every time I've been in the house, Donal's mother, Mrs. Creedon, has been ready with plenty of strong tea and a basket of the most amazing oatmeal biscuits I've ever eaten. On my first trip, I was so taken with the biscuits I begged for the recipe . "It's just the one on the bag," she pointed out politely. "Mrs. Allen from Ballymaloe did it for us." Sure enough, there it is, right on the back of the bag. Like most Irish people, the Creedons are exceptionally generous--they willingly share what they have and what they know. The recipe itself is simple: just good Irish butter, some sea salt, wheat flour, sugar and oatmeal. The key, obviously, is the quality of the oatmeal and the butter.
For fairly obvious reasons, the quality of the oats is critical to the flavor of the final meal. Donal buys only oats grown using organic, or transitional (to organic), techniques. Since the quality of each year's crop varies depending on the weather and the skill of the grower, Donal is adamant about going onsite to inspect every bushel he buys.
"I would always know the farm it's grown on. And I would never buy oats on the phone," he said seriously. He paused for a minute, chuckled, and mentioned, I think as much for his own entertainment as mine, "Everyone has good oats over the phone."
The second key to the quality of the Macroom oatmeal is that once the oats have been brought to the mill, they're toasted over moderate heat for two full days to enhance their flavor. There's a delicate, but distinct, toastiness in the smell of the meal, a toastiness that's taken through to the flavor of the cooked oatmeal. All you have to do is hold the bag up to your nose and you'll know what I mean. As Donal declared on my first visit to the mill, "A blind man can tell you the difference."
Then there's the actual milling, which is radically different from modern methods. Only the Waltons--and possibly one other mill on the island--still stone-grind the oats. Nearly all the others are working with the faster, more expedient option of roller mills. "If I were a farmer," Donal says with a smile, "it's as if I were still plowing with a horse."