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OATS The wonder ingredient

These versatile grains are part of British history. Comforting, filling and familiar, they’re a storecupboard staple with great cooking potential. They form the basis of a chewy flapjack, they give texture to cakes and make a crunchy protective coating when frying. If you think oats are just for breakfast, it’s time to think again

RECIPES AND FOOD STYLING LOTTIE COVELL WORDS PHOEBE STONE PHOTOGRAPHS MIKE ENGLISH STYLING MORAG FARQUHAR

Cheesy oat biscuits,

It’s not often something so good for you is so popular to eat…

Cereals have been cultivated since about 10,000 BC but oats are a relatively recent crop. It’s thought they emerged as a weed growing among established wheat and barley crops. The hardiness of oats and their innate ability to thrive in cold climates probably led to their cultivation during the Bronze Age – especially in cooler, more northerly climes.

The Romans grew oats, but deemed them inferior to wheat. Wheat was expensive though and, by the Middle Ages, oats had become a staple food both for livestock and for poor people across Britain. The perceived low status of oats was summed up pithily by Samuel Johnson in his 18th-century dictionary, where he defined them as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

We now know oats contain high levels of protein, minerals and soluble fibre (see p75), but in 1521 Scottish historian John Major hailed them as “the main strength of the Scottish and English armies – proof that oaten bread is not a thing to be laughed at”. In Scotland, porridge drawers – specially lined sections of a drawer in kitchen dressers – provided a place for breakfast to be poured in, solidified, then cut up and taken out to the fields. During the Industrial Revolution, oat gruel fuelled the workhouses and factories. Traditional oat dishes had strong geographical links. John Lea, the 14th-generation owner of Britain’s oldest oat producer, Mornflake, explains: “Oats are fundamentally a blank canvas. That’s one of the main reasons for them being such a success story.” Scottish tradition calls for porridge made with water, stirred with a wooden ‘spurtle’ and seasoned with salt, while the Welsh thicken their oatmeal with buttermilk – and it’s said the Irish add whiskey to theirs to ward off colds.

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Treat yourself to the March issue of delicious. and get baking with warming crumbles, Richard Bertinet’s award-winning sourdough and the ultimate custard doughnuts and brownies. Or treat family and friends with happy-making recipes from Thomasina Miers, Rachel Allen and Tom Kerridge. Embark on a new food adventure with DIY ricotta, throw a vegetarian dinner party or learn how to make proper coq au vin. delicious. magazine is the best way to improve your cooking.
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