Driving south from Inverness on Saturday I passed a turn for Carrbridge. I drove straight on, unaware that Carrbridge, on the banks of the River Dulnain, was, that very afternoon, hosting an event of global significance. In fact, I remained ignorant of the gathering until this morning when I woke to the life-affirming headline that Carrbridge was the location – for the 26th year – of the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championships. Lisa from Suffolk (owner of seven spurtles, not all golden) was this year’s winner. Me, I know what a spurtle is, but Lisa described it for those listeners who didn’t: A spurtle is wooden spoon without any spoon shape at the end; the top is usually whittled into a stylised thistle shape. Common in Scotland, one uses a spurtle to stir porridge. I use mine to stir dishcloths when I boil them on the stove with a little detergent – this, I suspect, is a sacrilegious use of the spurtle. Asked about the secret to her winning recipe, Lisa from Suffolk was not coy: use half pinhead oats and half coarse oats, she advised, soak them overnight (in water) and cook only with water. Halfway through cooking (on this point she was unequivocal) add salt. Salt is a must, she told us, regardless as to whether or not you choose to sweeten your porridge afterwards.
How do you like yours? Golden syrup, yoghurt, added raisins, fresh berries, a lick of cream or maybe a cheeky pour of whiskey? My mother will not count a day as being well lived unless it has begun with a bowl of porridge. K. has hers with an artistic shake of cinnamon dropped from a height with a song. And I like mine with …. well, I don’t really like it much at all, truth be told. I like in the same way as I enjoy jumping into cold water, very occasionally. Both cold water swimming and porridge eating I find best crept up on and taken by surprise: don’t think about it, dive in, and know you’ll feel a lot better for having completed it. Eating porridge feels sensible, but I don’t relish it and I need to be really hungry. Probably I still harbour those old associations with poverty and the grey sludge fed to Oliver Twist and the fact that ‘doing porridge’ is an old slang term for serving a prison sentence. Remember Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale playing hapless inmates in the sitcom ‘Porridge’ back in the Seventies? Funny as the programme was, watching those two behind bars didn’t do anything to glam up a bowl of porridge.
The Donnelly family from County Armagh in Northern Ireland elevated its status for me somewhat. In 2017, this family of 13 siblings made it to the Guinness book of world records by being the world’s oldest family. They had achieved an incredible combined age of 1,075 years and 68 days. And the link to porridge? Simple – one of the things they put their longevity down to (and there will be many) was their particular habit of eating porridge twice a day – breakfast and supper. ‘A nice warm bite before sleep,’ the youngest of them, 72 years old, is credited as saying.
I got an email from J. this morning in response to my suggestion to meet up for a cuppa later in the week. I knew she had been away and was delighted when she briefly mentioned her time in France, including an account of a wonderful coastal walk round the glamorous Cap d’Antibes. ‘Ah,’ she wrote, ‘I should have been born into wealth, but now I’m back to my real life: rain, wind and porridge.’ When I email her back I will remind her of the life extending properties of porridge!
Tomorrow morning I may or may not have a bowl of porridge, but if I do I will think of this short quote from Stephen Fry, full of truthful simplicity: ‘Nothing in this world is as it seems. Except, possibly, porridge.’