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Issue 14 - Opportunities from oats

Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


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Opportunities from oats

Sue Lawrence turns her attentions to one of Scotland's best loved and most important natural products

One cold frosty spring morning, I was lucky enough to see oats being milled in the old-fashioned way at the Montgarrie Mills near Alford, Aberdeenshire.

High above the roaring coal fire and under the huge domed chimney, I was able to stand on a bed of hot toasty oats (still in their husks so don’t worry about hygiene) and help turn them with a long-handled "sheeler" (wooden shovel) as they slowly dried over the heat of the coal fire three floors below.

Not only was the warmth and feel of those grains underfoot unforgettable but the smell of toasted nutty oats was sublime. It was like a comforting bowl of porridge on a Caribbean beach.

A reality check brought me back to my surroundings, with Donald Macdonald, production manager in the mill his great grandfather bought in 1894, leading me off the heated oaty carpet.

The cleaned, locally-grown oats had been laid out on the traditional flat kiln floor to dry for about four hours, turned to ensure even drying, until they have a moisture content of only 4.5% – far lower than most producers.

This might take a little longer but the resulting flavour is intensely oaty and nutty. Once they have cooled down (which can take up to 10 days) the oats are screened then put through two shelling stones, one to open the longest grains, the other to open the shorter husks. They are ground into the four cuts (fine, medium, rough, pinhead) and finally packed.

The oatmeal from this old mill has the most fabulous rich taste and wonderful texture, perhaps because of its low moisture content or perhaps because it is processed in the time-honoured way.

The mill is still powered by a massive water wheel (some 7.5 metres in diameter) built in 1882. As I was standing outside watching the wheel slowly crank into action as the sluice gates let in water from the Essett burn, there was a Heath Robinson moment, for inside the mill the shelling stones began to turn, the riddles (large-meshed sieves) rhythmically shook and the millstones ground round.

In these days of high-speed, high-tech food manufacturing, seeing a mill such as Alford in full production creates an overwhelming sense of history.

It also bestows a sense of pride that Scotland is still producing such quality raw ingredients. For Scots down the ages have eaten oats not only for breakfast but simply to survive.

Cheap and nourishing, they were the staple, converted into oatcakes, bannocks, porridge, cranachan, mealie puddings and brose.

And as for Dr Samuel Johnson and his well-documented remark about oats being “a grain which in England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people.”

I concur with a Lord Elibank whose riposte to the doctor at the time was "and where will you get such men and such horses?"

Oatmeal is often used in Scotland to thicken soups and stews. I like to garnish this with some finely chopped lovage leaves, which has a flavour reminiscent of celery.

25 g / 1 oz butter
2 leeks, white parts only, sliced thinly
500 g /1 lb 2 oz carrots, sliced thinly
1.2 litres / 2 pints chicken stock
zest of 1 orange
25 g /1 oz medium or fine oatmeal
3 tbsp milk
finely chopped lovage leaves, to garnish

1. Melt the butter over a moderate heat, and then add the leeks. Fry gently for about five minutes. Add the carrots and fry gently for another five minutes.
2. Add chicken stock, salt, pepper and orange zest. Bring to the boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes on low heat.
3. Meanwhile, soak the oatmeal in the milk for 15 minutes.
4. Add the oatmeal mixture to the soup after 30 minutes, then continue to cook, stirring regularly, for 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning.
5. Purée or liquidise and serve piping hot, garnished with chopped lovage leaves.

6 plump fresh scallops, trimmed, corals
carefully cut off
1 medium free-range egg, beaten
70g /2 1/2 oz medium oatmeal
25g / 1 oz butter

1. Dip the scallops in the egg then coat in the oatmeal. Chill for an hour or so then re-dip in egg and re-coat in oatmeal. Chill again. Remove the scallops to room temperature for between 15 and 20 minutes or so before cooking.
2. Heat the butter in a frying pan until medium-hot then fry the scallops until just done : two to three minutes on each side. Serve piping hot.


These lovely oat squares are chewier than most flapjacks, because of the bananas mashed in with the oats.

They are ideal for children’s lunch boxes or with a cup of afternoon tea.

Remember to use porridge oats and not jumbo or whole rolled oats, as these tend to make the mixture too crumbly, not wonderfully moist and chewy.

150g / 5 oz butter
100g / 3 oz light muscovado sugar
2 heaped tbsp golden syrup
350g / 12 oz porridge oats
1 level tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 medium-size, ripe bananas

1. Melt together the butter, sugar and syrup in a large saucepan over a low heat. Then pour in the porridge oats, cinnamon, baking powder and a pinch of salt.
2. Once well combined, peel and mash the bananas and add, stirring well to combine.
3. Turn into a buttered Swiss-roll tin 23 x 33 cm (9 x 13 in.). Smooth the surface with the back of a metal spoon.
4. Bake in a preheated oven (180C / 350F / Gas 4) for 20-25 minutes or until the edges are beginning to turn golden brown. It will all feel fairly firm to the touch.
5. Transfer the tray to wire rack and cut into squares while still hot.
Leave until completely cold before removing with a palette knife.