Words by Bridget Masters, Coordinator, Leadership and Events at GrainGrowers
Oats. Porridge. Oatmeal if you’re American. Porage if you’re a 14th English century peasant.
Some love it (GrainGrowers Chairman Brett Hosking is a super fan), some hate it. I’m in the fan camp. I’ve eaten at least 150g a day for around 200 days a year, for 25 years. That’s approximately a tonne of oats. That number isn’t even factoring in an Anzac biscuit/flapjack addiction.
It’s also fascinating that the humble oat has quite a turbulent history.
To begin with, oats have had a difficult time establishing themselves as something to be taken seriously. Very relatable!
For a long time, the humble annual grass was considered a weed, or only fit for animal consumption. Oats was the last common grain to be cultivated and purposely grown.
According to archaeologist John K Williams, Ancient Romans considered oats to be a diseased wheat. Merchants would open the barrels of grain after a long ocean voyage from Asia minor and be all like ‘gee, wow, thanks Claudius….’ before tipping it into the Adriatic and going off to invade another small village somewhere.
Neighbouring Ancient Greece however had a bit of time for oats, but only in medicinal practice. Ovid and Hippocrates both mention oats as a remedy for skin ailments and, were they alive today, could probably sue for a percentage of all sales of the Aveeno skincare range.
In 1500AD oats started to be more appreciated. The Scandinavians starting to cultivate crops, with it becoming part of Northern European farming practices around 500 years later. It’s thought that they used oats to make beer, used the straw to build houses, and for animal feed.
It was the Scots who turned oats into a meal. They still boast one of the largest per capita consumption rates. Scottish Universities used to have a holiday called ‘Oatmeal Monday’ where students would visit home with the purpose to collect more oats to see them through the semester. The dish “gruel”, made famous by that scene in Oliver Twist, is a watery porridge mix invented in Scotland, used to feed infants and the unwell.
While the Scots loved oats, the English rolled their eyes at it. Englishman Samuel Johnson wrote a dictionary in 1755 and defined oats as “eaten by people in Scotland but fit only for horses in England.” A Scottish Lord retorted that “That’s why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men!”
Ironically, a few years later when Robert Peel introduced the Corn Laws (corn was the term used to describe any grain in the Victorian era), this raised the price of oats by ten shillings. The people of England took to the streets for a series of pleasantly named but incredibly destructive “Corn Riots”.
Today, we can enjoy Cheerios are made with oats! AEGIC have developed oat-based rice and noodles! Australia produces the best tasting oats in the world (to this afficianado). Each time an Australian grower produces another crop, it’s a new chapter for this fine, versatile grain.
Farmers, thank you. Scientists, thank you. And to the Scandinavian guy back in 1500AD who thought “hey, let’s give this grain a go in the fields of Østerfarnebö”, thank you.