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About Oats

Oats were one of the first cereals cultivated by man. They were to be found growing in ancient China as long ago as 7000 BC while the Greeks are believed to be the first to make porridge from oats. However, it was the Romans who not only introduced oats to other countries in Western Europe, but also gave them and other cultivated crops the name cereals, after the Roman goddess of agriculture: Ceres.
 
Today there are many varieties of oats which have evolved from the original Asian wild grass (Avena Fatua). The best quality oats grow where there is light fertile soil, where the climate is temperate and there is a rainfall of over 60cm (24") a year.
 
Oat grains are sown in the winter and ripened in the fields by the summer sun. The oats are then harvested when fully ripe in the autumn. One can easily recognize oats from other grain crops such as wheat and barley, by the way the grains appear in clusters called "panicles" on tall graceful stems. A typical oat plant grows to around 90cm (3ft) high and each stem generally carries about twenty to twenty-five grains. Each panicle carries two or three grains and each grain is covered by a outer husk that helps protect it all the way to the mill.
 
These oat grains are the raw material used to produce oatmeal and a variety of oat-based products.
The cultivation of oats is particularly suited to Ireland's climatic conditions and therefore oatmeal became a staple food of the Irish from prehistoric times until the seventeenth century. Vast quantities of oatmeal were consumed in the form of porridge or stirabout (a thick mixture).With the introduction of the potato in the late sixteenth century, the prevalence of oatmeal porridge declined as potatoes superseded oats as the staple diet and only in times of poor potato harvest did it temporarily regain its pre-potato status. However, despite the prevalence of the potato, oats maintained a strong foothold in the national diet until well into the late nineteenth century.
 
Most households also held stores of oatmeal for the production of porridge, bread - and importantly - as an ingredient for the manufacture of black puddings.
 
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries oatmeal became increasingly popular when it was mixed with whiskey as a cure for the common cold. In this period porridge increasingly became a breakfast dish and this was promoted by the establishment of the commercial oatmeal producers, Flahavan's, in the eighteenth century.
 
Despite the establishment of bacon and eggs as the "traditional Irish breakfast" in the nineteenth century, porridge still retained its place as a regular breakfast dish. The popularity of breakfast porridge is well illustrated in the culinary advice offered by George Bernard Shaw in his 1904 publication John Bull's Other Island :
 
"Boil oatmeal porridge for 20 minutes; and if you think the result mere oatmeal and water, try boiling it for two hours. (If you still think it as unpalatable as dry bread, treat it as you treat the bread; stir up a bounteous lump of butter in it, and do not forget the salt.) In eating oatmeal porridge, remember that there's nothing so becomes a man as moderation and an admixture of stewed fruit."
 
Copyright: - Ireland's Traditional Foods - An Exploration of Irish Local & Typical Foods & Drinks by Cathal Cowan and Regina Sexton - Published by Teagasc- The National Food Centre, Dublin, 1997.
 
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