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1 Jun 2021

Edinburgh’s Pantry: porridge and peasemeal

Written by Lindsay Middleton, PhD student at the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen
A row of old, leather-bound cookbooks stand on a shelf. The red book closest to the camera is called Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management.
19th- and 20th-century cookbooks at Hill of Tarvit Mansion, Fife | National Trust for Scotland collection
Written to celebrate the re-opening of Gladstone’s Land on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the Edinburgh’s Pantry series is illustrated with images from the National Trust for Scotland’s interiors and collections. This first article looks at the cheap and nutritious pulses and grains that filled the diets of those who could not afford wheat or meat.

Porridge – a dish made from oats heated with water or milk, and seasoned with salt, sugar, or honey – is still hailed as a staple of Scottish cuisine, epitomised by the kilted mascot of Scott’s Porage Oats.

Nowadays, we think of porridge predominantly as a breakfast dish, which can be dressed up with fruit, chocolate, spices and syrup, or eaten relatively plain. In recent years, porridge has undergone something of a renaissance, with the trend for ‘clean eating’ extolling the virtues of overnight oats, and artisan cafés peddling deliciously crafted porridge combinations.

Most of us probably keep oats in our pantries or kitchen cupboards alongside other breakfast cereals, or as a baking ingredient for biscuits and flapjacks. But if we turn to the past, porridge was not always a breakfast dish. Nor was it typically a sweet substance but was instead seasoned with salt.

Stirred with a spurtle in an iron pot, which hung over an open-hearth fire or sat atop a stove, porridge and broths made from oats, grains and pulses would have provided cheap, hearty and nutritious meals to the people of Edinburgh from the 17th century onwards. Porridge and broths were eaten both in the morning and evening, with the chief purpose of filling a hungry stomach at little cost.

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From the 17th century onwards in Edinburgh, as in most of the United Kingdom, meat was an expensive food item that was not readily available to the poor and working classes. This remained the case right through to the 20th century when working-class families relied on cheaper cuts of meat and the frugal use of leftovers to incorporate meat into their diets. Filling, nutritious food therefore had to come from cheaper sources, and this was where bread and food made from grains and pulses came in.

Oats, peas, beans, barley and rye were relatively hardy crops, making them easy to grow in tough Scottish climes and harsh landscapes. Oats have been a foodstuff in Scotland since at least the Iron Age, although in the 18th century the lands that grew them expanded, meaning they became even more widespread.

Oats were turned into a whole series of cheap, filling dishes. Some examples include Scotch broth; porridge, gruel or brose; sowens (a dish made by fermenting the inner husks of the oat grain in water and salt); crowdie (toasted oatmeal with cream or butter and sugar or treacle); and skirlie (a dish made with oatmeal, onions and suet or bacon) – these were all savoury oat-based dishes that were economic in terms of ingredients, effort and fuel.

High in carbohydrates and protein, oats could be heated with water at the very least (and milk or cream if it was to hand), with the addition of whatever flavourings were available. These different preparations turned the oats into a variety of regional dishes that were consumed all over Scotland, from the islands to coastal towns, and along Edinburgh’s bustling streets. These dishes were also easy to prepare, typically requiring just one pot or pan that sat over a low-burning fire, to be kept warm and stirred throughout the day. Busy, hungry workers were fuelled by these hearty breakfasts and suppers.

A black and white engraving showing a family in a kitchen of a rural cottage. A pot is bubbling on the fire to the left. Two women are gathered around a young, crying boy on the right, who has a cut finger. An older child watches behind.
A pot on the stove often had porridge bubbling away all day. Detail from an engraving entitled ‘The Cut Finger’, Abraham Raimbach, after David Wilkie, 1810 | Brodie Castle, National Trust for Scotland

Oats, pulses and grains – like dried peas, barley and rye – would also have been used in baking. If other crops were struggling, or as a cheaper alternative to oats and barley, peas were often dried and ground to make peasemeal, which could be baked. In the 19th century, finer grains such as wheat became slightly more affordable, but prior to this only wealthy Scots would have eaten bread made from the light-coloured wheat – a signifier of status.

Wheat was difficult to grow in the majority of Scotland, although it was grown in some areas of lowland Scotland from the 17th century onwards. It was not a hardy crop, and most of it was sold at prices that made it unobtainable to the general population. Wealthy professionals or merchants could eat ‘manchet’: fine bread made from wheaten flour. Coarser rye bread, oatcakes, baps and bannocks would have formed stodgy, stomach-filling breakfasts and meals for the poor and labouring classes from the 17th right through until the 20th century. Bannocks and oatcakes were typically oat-based but could be cut with the cheaper peasemeal if money was tight.

A circular, iron, flat pan, with a small handle to the right, is displayed against a plain grey background.
The ironsmiths of Culross had a monopoly on making ‘girdles’ – flat iron pans found in most 16th- and 17th-century Scottish kitchens, used for cooking bannocks (like oatcakes) | early 17th century

Fuel economy also factored into the preparation of these baked foods. Until the uptake of interior ranges and stoves became more common in the 19th century, it would be unlikely that urban dwellings would have had an oven. Most people living in Edinburgh during the 17th and 18th centuries cooked on or over the hearth – ovens were reserved for the homes of the wealthy and were generally only found in larger rural homes where there was space for a large kitchen. Certainly, in the cramped tenement of Gladstone’s Land, on Edinburgh’s High Street, a range would not have appeared until late in the property’s lifespan.

Those without an oven sourced their bread and baked goods from bakeries. Edinburgh’s residents had an ample selection of professional bakeries to choose from by the 19th century. In 1844, there were three bakers in the crowded streets of the Lawnmarket alone, meaning Edinburgh’s residents may have eaten more bread than people in the rest of Scotland. But when it came to baking at home, pulses and grains were again key ingredients.

Coarser grains gave structural integrity to the oatcakes, bannocks and ‘baiks’, (which were like thick, soft biscuits), meaning they could be hand-formed. Bannocks and oatcakes were also relatively flat. They could therefore be cooked on a hot stone or griddle that would be placed over the fire and turned, so they cooked on both sides, rather than relying on the surrounding heat of an oven. It is common to find bannock toasters – even somewhat elaborate, decorated ones – across National Trust for Scotland properties, and so these simple baked goods would have been cooked in the homes of Edinburgh’s rich and poor.

While nowadays few people use peasemeal, oats and barley in everyday cooking, these grains would have been a mainstay of Edinburgh’s pantry between the 17th and 20th centuries. Incredibly versatile as well as hardy, filling and cheap, oats and grains made up the bulk of people’s diet, alongside vegetables. Meat, fish and fruit were used in much smaller quantities due to their expense; for many, they were only a luxurious supplement. However, most homes could afford oats for their daily porridge, which is why each home would have had a bannock toaster, and probably a spurtle or two.

Give this traditional recipe a try:

“Porridge (The One and Only Method)

Ingredients: Oatmeal, salt, water

It is advisable to keep a goblet exclusively for porridge. Allow for each person one breakfast cupful of water, a handful of oatmeal (about an ounce and a quarter), and a small salt-spoonful of salt. Use fresh spring water and be particular about the quality of the oatmeal. Midlothian oats are unsurpassed the world over.

Bring the water to the boil and as soon as it reaches boiling point add the oatmeal, letting it fall in a steady rain from the left hand and stirring it briskly the while with the right, sun-wise, or the right-hand turn for luck – and convenience.

A porridge-stick, called a spurtle, and in some parts a theevil, or, as in Shetland, a gruel-tree, is used for this purpose. Be careful to avoid lumps, unless the children clamour for them. When the porridge is boiling steadily, draw the mixture to the side and put on the lid.

Let it cook for from twenty to thirty minutes according to the quality of the oatmeal, and do not add the salt, which has a tendency to harden the meal and prevent its swelling, until it has cooked for at least ten minutes. On the other hand, never cook porridge without salt.

Ladle straight into porringers or soup-plates and serve with small individual bowls of cream, or milk, or buttermilk. Each spoonful of porridge, which should be very hot, is dipped in the cream or milk, which should be quite cold, before it is conveyed to the mouth.”
McNeill, F. Marian, The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Lore with Old-time Recipes
(Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1998), pp. 197–198

About the author: Lindsay Middleton is a SGSAH-funded PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen. Her work with the National Trust for Scotland is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Lindsay has written a research report on historical recipes, food and drink as part of an internship with the Trust. She has also been instrumental in creating a new Food Tour for Gladstone’s Land.

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