Ireland's Renowned Oatmeal
Not all oatmeal is equal: Taste Macroom's, from a 200-year-old mill, and you won't want instant again.
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."
To make "rolled oats," millers first grind the husks off the grain. The oats are then sliced, steamed to soften them and then finally, rolled flat. The highly technical term "smushed" keeps coming to mind: rolled oats are flat, soft, round, something like the seedpods of autumn elm trees without the wings. The process extends shelf life and speeds cooking time, but unfortunately, it can also damage flavor and texture. "Quick oats" are sliced and pressed even more thinly, making it possible to produce porridge in a matter of minutes.
Traditional stone grinding, as is done at Walton's Mill, actually cuts the oats instead of flattening them. What comes out looks more like coarse, uncooked cornmeal. The oats' natural oils are left in, so the meal is darker in color in both its raw and cooked states. The most important difference is in the way it tastes. Porridge made from rolled oats is, in my experience, generally bland, and softer in texture. Quick oat porridge is even less appealing. At best they seem to be vehicles to convey butter and sugar while providing a filling breakfast, but as far as actual flavor goes there's not much there.
There is, of course, no one "right" way to make porridge--like paella, polenta and pasta , pretty much every oatmeal fan has his or her own preferred method. Commercial rolled oats are generally cooked at three to one.
At Macroom, the Creedons recommend a ratio of four parts water to one part meal, then suggest adding more liquid if needed. (That means that the yield per pound of meal is significantly higher with the Macroom than it would be with other oatmeal.) Bring the water to a boil, then slowly add the oatmeal, mixing constantly to avoid lumps. Return the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Add a bit of salt to taste, then serve with soft brown sugar on top and some cold milk on the side.
In Ireland, this method is known as making porridge "on water." This is certainly the most popular method in Ireland. Still, a well-spoken minority advocates making porridge "on milk." Dublin food writer Maureen Tatlow told me once that using milk instead of water, or at the least, half of each, was the way to go. Having tried both, at home I generally go with the richer texture you get from cooking on milk, but both are certainly good.
The next question is, how do you serve a proper porridge?
The standard Irish method calls for cream or milk, and what the Irish call "soft brown sugar". The sugar is basically traditionally-made brown sugar, the sort in which the molasses is left in rather than the commercial alternatives where it's all removed then a bit of molasses is added back to give a bit of color. We know it as Muscovado .
Some people pour the cream--or milk--straight onto the bowl of oatmeal. Others like the liquid on the side; they sprinkle on the sugar, fill their spoon with hot oatmeal, then dip it into a bowl of cold cream or milk. If you're after something really special, I'd have to say go with the cream; its richness triangles perfectly with the toastiness of the Macroom oatmeal and the sweetness of the sugar. Not being a sweets eater, I'm actually a little more inclined to the Scottish way of serving oatmeal, which seems to be limited to cream or milk and a little salt. Don't skimp on the quality of the dairy product. Cream or milk from Calder Dairy (which we use for all our coffee drinks and for the cow's milk cheeses and the gelato we make at the Creamery) definitely makes a big difference!
One challenge with traditional oatmeal like Macroom is that it takes a bit longer to prepare in the morning than you may have time for. The Creedons deal with this by starting the process the previous evening. They bring the water to a boil, add the meal, bring it back to a boil then turn it off and let it sit on the stove covered overnight. Then in the morning, they just heat it up and eat it.
Savory Oatmeal Suppers
A few years back I had a conversation with author and food historian William Rubel that altered my oatmeal outlook, and the way I eat it, too, forever. William pointed out something that, having heard it, seems kind of obvious, but which up until he said it, I'd never thought about. He said that although our current approach to oatmeal is that it's only a breakfast food to be served with sweet accompaniments like honey, sugar or raisins, it must have, at one time, also been a base for savory toppings. Because like other comparable dishes--think polenta, grits, or rice porridge--oatmeal was the main source of sustenance for 19th century poor people in Britain. Which means it was eaten at all times of the day, and that it would have been eaten with all sorts of accompaniments, savory and sweet.
Instead of thinking of it only as morning fare, I've started to see it as a savory dinner course. Served with butter, grated farmhouse cheddar, chopped winter greens (like Swiss chard), a bit of sea salt and freshly ground pepper, it's really pretty darned good stuff. To make this simple dish, just follow the recipe on the can, adding the chopped greens into the oatmeal while it's cooking. When it's done, top with melted butter and some grated cheddar (a good one of course). Add salt and pepper to taste and enjoy for dinner.