50 Shades of Greige: Inside The World Porridge Making Championships

As increasing numbers of British men become keen amateur chefs, so cooking begins to resemble competitive sport. at The World Porridge Making Championships in Scotland, Esquire's Tim Lewis tests his own recipe against oatmeal obsessives from around the world. all hoping to take home the golden spurtle, and confirmation that they really are as good as the pros.

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Why is there no monument,
To Porridge in our land?
If it's good enough to eat,
It's good enough to stand!
On a plinth in London,
A statue we should see,
Of Porridge made in Scotland,
Signed, "Oatmeal, OBE."
(By a young dog of three)

– Spike Milligan

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Part I: The night before

At the welcome drinks on the eve of the World Porridge Making Championships in the Cairngorms, it fast becomes apparent that the smart money is on two contenders. The men are very different; polar opposites, really. Nick Barnard arrived in north Scotland in a 1955 Cessna Skywagon that he piloted himself, landing – hairily by all accounts except his own – on a grass strip surrounded by mountains used by the local gliding club. He creates his porridge from the finest, most exclusive ingredients: this might be raw, unpasteurised milk "smuggled over the border" or (as he did one year) bowls crafted by a master chocolatier that slowly melt under the warmth of the porridge like a Salvador Dalí pocket watch. Barnard will soon leave this pre-event function to return to the only guesthouse in the region with a hot tub.

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Barnard is both serial and cereal entrepreneur; at a surprising 56 years old, he is a vigorous, unblushing advocate for Rude Health, the upmarket food and drink company he co-founded in 2005. Tomorrow, he instructs me, he will be cooking with "sprouted" oatmeal. Oats that are sprouted – that is, germinated – are speculated to be more nutritious and easier to digest. Currently a health fad in the United States, Barnard would like to bring them to the mass market over here on the back of a triumph in the Golden Spurtle, the competition for the best "traditional" porridge. "If my porridge wins, which I'm assuming it will, we'll put the oatmeal into production," he says. "It's just so fresh tasting, so nourishing, so delicious."

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In the Saltire-blue corner, meanwhile, is John Boa, 53, a folk singer and student of Gaelic who lives on the Isle of Skye. He was arm-twisted to enter the championships in 2011 by a Gaelic-language documentary crew and promptly jigged off with the Golden Spurtle trophy. The next year, he won the People's Choice award and last year again claimed the Golden Spurtle. Boa cooks with regular oatmeal, tap water and Hebridean sea salt. After tonight's soirée, he will retire to his one-man tent. Boa has deep-set, furtive eyes and puts his success in the contest down to nifty handling of the spurtle, the simple wooden dowel, ideally carved from Scottish maple, that has been used forever to flip oatcakes and stir porridge. (Heaven forfend you ever refer to it as "a stick".) What, I ask, if you are unable to procure a spurtle? "Well, in extreme circumstances, I've used an inverted wooden spoon," Boa replies. "And once, I used three chopsticks bound together."

On the next rung of contenders are three more men. Simon Rookyard is a 24-year-old PhD student at Manchester university. His degree was in physics and astrophysics and now he is investigating pulsars. He has joined battle for the Golden Spurtle every year since 2009, refining his methodology with each visit. He is famous – not in a good way – for his dish of porridge kedgeree or "podgeree" in 2010. "There's been a lot of experimenting," he says. "Your standard scientific way of experimenting with something is that you change one thing at a time and see what it does. And that's essentially what I've done over the years."

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There are three details you need to retain about Neal Robertson, who won the Golden Spurtle in 2010, and the award for best "speciality" porridge in 2011. One: he was so delighted about that initial victory – on 10 October, 2010 – that he had the date inked on his right bicep. "My first tattoo at the age of 54," he says. "Same age as Fern Britton got her first one done, I think." Two: he is the inventor of the Spon, a double-backed cooking utensil. And three: he jokes that one day he wants to sprinkle cocaine in his competition porridge. "Mmmm, it's very more-ish," he imagines future judges remarking, rubbing their gums with an index finger.

Neal Robertson, porridge making champion in 2010, reveals his permanent memento

Finally, rounding out the elite group is Per Carlsson, a lawyer who also runs a youth hostel in the south of Sweden. He has arrived in the Cairngorms with three coaches, one of whom is the former nutrition advisor to the Swedish cross-country skiing team with experience of two Olympic Games and seven world championships. Carlsson will be making a porridge infused with fresh, postbox-red lingonberries and sugar from the sap of birch trees in spring. He's a competition rookie, but his pedigree makes all the other favourites regard him warily.

These men are all well-educated, even cerebral, and not the least bit interested in attention or fame. There is something about porridge – which rewards diligent, patient tending – that appears to attract thoughtful types. It seems particularly to appeal to men, too, and male spurtlers have dominated the World Porridge Making Championships in recent years. Various theories are advanced over the weekend: that men are more comfortable in competition-format cooking or even that they are happier than women to put themselves out there and fail. Perhaps porridge is simply one of those dishes – however unreconstructed the domestic arrangements in a household – that no man feels like a sissy making. My father, who sometimes needs directions to find the kitchen, will nevertheless cook a roast, tend the barbecue and oversee the porridge when the mornings turn frosty.

And finally there's me. I applied to compete in the World Porridge Making Championships after reading about it on a pack of pinhead oats. I make porridge pretty well every morning for my girlfriend and our baby daughter, but I'm not a professional. I've never once considered the physics of porridge and I've certainly not invented a special utensil that whips more air into the mixture. I'm not even distantly Scottish. So why have I entered? Probably for the same reason that 16,000 people applied for the last series of The Great British Bake Off; or that there have now been 1,364 episodes of Come Dine With Me, with spin-offs in dozens of countries, including Iran. I might not say it out loud, but I think I'm really good at cooking and not enough people recognise this truth. I think I'm better than all my friends. I think I'm better than my mother, which causes an unresolved schism in our relationship, and I think I'm better than a lot of people that do it for a living.

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I am not especially proud of this admission – or that clearly, pathetically I require validation of it – which is why I mostly keep it to myself. A question that I'm asked most often before I leave for the Cairngorms to compete is: "Is this a joke or are you serious?" I reply that it's somewhere between the two, but as the event looms, my behaviour becomes a little compulsive. Some days, I eat oats in different forms for all three meals. I go to bed thinking of what I can cook, dream about porridge and then wake up and make it. I scour the cookbooks of the modern culinary greats – Ferran, René, Heston – for tips. I use my Esquire connections to crib advice from two of the outstanding chefs in Britain.

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Half of all people in Britain eat oats regularly for breakfast. That's 30m people. I start to think: "World Porridge Champion" has a ring to it, doesn't it? All that stands between me and the title now are 13 people in a village hall in deepest Scotland.

Part II: An abridged history of competitive porridge making

The World Porridge Making Championships were first held in September 1994. The brainwave of a hotelier in Carrbridge, a 700-strong village positioned forgettably between the bright lights of Inverness and Aviemore. Over the years, Carrbridge has become known for such marketing stunts. In the Fifties, it was home to Britain's first ski hotel, run by Austrian ex-racer Karl Fuchs, who not long before had won an Iron Cross for destroying a bridge in Yugoslavia. Prince Charles was, it's said, an early pupil. More recently, the village has hosted Carve Carrbridge, a chainsaw wood-sculpting competition, and in 2009 it made national headlines when its elders complained the BBC's weather bureau discouraged tourists with their pessimistic forecasts of rain.

There are two categories in the championships: "traditional" porridge, made from just oatmeal, water and salt; and "speciality", which encourages competitors to use their imagination. For most of the first two decades, it was a local concern, fought between villagers and nearby B&B owners. Everything changed in 2009 when American Matt Cox not only entered but won the traditional category. Cox is an employee of Bob's Red Mill, an organic food company in Oregon, and he introduced a marginal-gains philosophy to porridge-making: he arrived a day early to practise and shipped in home-grown pinhead oats, bottles of mineral-free Oregon Rain water and used a spurtle hewn from Oregon myrtle wood.

Some locals were put off by this professionalism and in 2014, for the first time, no Carrbridgians will be competing in the World Porridge Making Championship. Even Ian Bishop, a ski instructor and owner of the local cycle shop, the only man to take part in all previous 20 heats, has hung up his spurtle. Still national honour remains at stake and, for some, the idea of representing Scotland against the world clearly adds a frisson to the competition. In 2012, the Golden Spurtle was claimed by an Englishman: Benedict Horsburgh from Twickenham. When John Boa retook the title the following year, he wept salty tears as he accepted the award and spoke about the pride of returning it to his homeland.

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Such discussions – of Scottish patriotism; of locals versus corporate invaders – feel topical at the 2014 championships, which are held just a couple of weeks after the referendum on independence. The Highlands region, in which Carrbridge falls, was split 53 per cent "No" to 47 per cent "Yes", with almost nine out of 10 people turning out to vote. But, whenever I raise the subject, there is little enthusiasm for any further debate. Perhaps it is too raw. Maybe they are tired of talking. Either way, a porridge competition proves to be a unifying neutral ground.

Part III: One month to go

Before starting to experiment on my speciality porridge, I decide to speak to an expert. Jocky Petrie, as the name suggests, is as Scottish as Irn-Bru or fighting in the street. He is also one of the finest and most twisted development chefs in the world, first at Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck and now at double Michelin-starred The Ledbury. With Blumenthal, he helped create snail porridge, one of the most notorious dishes of the molecular-gastronomy era. Development chefs are the maverick oddballs of the food world and Petrie, it becomes clear, is obviously and brilliantly a bit nuts.

"Have you thought about cooking porridge in deionised water?" Petrie asks. "You'll get it next to the windscreen washer and the de-icer in the Shell garage. It's used for putting into car batteries and irons to stop the limescale getting built up. We used to cook vegetables in it at the Duck to keep them green, because the normal water was so hard and full of calcium. It's not good for you to drink too much of it, but it's not going to kill you or anything."

Even with such heartening reassurance, I decide against using deionised water. Still, talking to Petrie is mind-expanding and, at home, my experiments become much more ambitious. Here's an incomplete list of what I cook in one two-week period: instant-coffee porridge; peanut butter-and-jam porridge; porridge with spring onions and soy sauce; mango and coconut milk porridge; porridge with sour pickled plums and mishima yukari (a fiery seasoning popular in Japan as a cold decongestant); crispy pancetta and blueberry maple syrup porridge; mushroom risotto, with oats instead of rice; and cereal-milk porridge with stewed apples, butterscotch miso and cinnamon dust.

Breakfasts, I can't lie, become a chore. I worry about Scotch Fiddle, a scurvy rash last seen centuries ago on Scottish labourers from excessive porridge intake. My daughter develops a sudden interest in cornflakes. Then, at last, a breakthrough. For dinner one night I make an Indian dessert called gajar ka halwa, in which grated carrots are cooked in milk for a couple of hours and then sweetened with ghee, sugar, nuts, raisins and cardamom. It can be eaten hot or cold and, if you close your eyes, has the consistency and even the taste of an exotic porridge. The next morning, I replace the carrots with oats, the milk with carrot juice, and keep the rest of the toppings the same. It's actually not disgusting. The oats turn a strange, though not unsettling, orange and there are tiny pockets of zingy sweetness from the golden raisins and crunch from the pistachio nuts. I have my speciality porridge.

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Gajar ka halwa porridge

Before I leave for Scotland, I share a bowl of porridge (his, not mine) with Jeremy Lee, a Dundonian who is now head chef of Quo Vadis in London. Lee is the ideal man to offer advice on the traditional section of the competition. He takes his porridge like his father did before him: the oatmeal is cooked simply in water for an age and then served with a sprinkling of dark muscovado sugar and a bowl of cream on the side. This bracing dish is a variant of the brose – literally "broth" – that Scottish farmers have eaten for centuries and is credited with helping them to repel the Romans, the Norsemen and the Auld Enemy, England.

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Brose is a reminder, too, that the time-honoured ways have often endured for a reason. "The thing that's crazy," says Lee, "is that we've got central heating and fitted carpets and live this remarkably secure life, so the necessity for porridge has diminished, but the want hasn't. It's impervious to change: it is the same in the 21st century as it was in the 18th century. It's just a brilliant über-über food. There's all this nonsense now about what makes a superfood. A blueberry is pretty and good with sugar and vanilla, but it don't beat an oat."

Part IV: The day itself

The morning of the 2014 World Porridge Making Championships is rainy and dreek. High in the Cairngorms, there's the first snow of the season. In other words, perfect porridge weather. Carrbridge's Village Hall has been decked out like a television studio, albeit a threadbare one in the high 200s of the cable wastelands. There are five tables, each topped with two portable burners, facing a room with seating for around 100 spectators. This seems optimistic for an event that consists of people staring at pots and frenetically stirring, but the room slowly starts to fill.

Before the competition begins, all the entrants head for a photocall at the village's 18th-century packhorse bridge, the oldest in the Highlands, before wandering up the main street led by bagpipers in full regalia. It's a corny, shortbread-and-sporrans vision of Scotland that doesn't exist anymore – and maybe never has – which makes it all the more embarrassing that I find it unexpectedly stirring. I fall in step with Per Carlsson: just two guys who have travelled thousands of miles to cook a couple of bowls of porridge. He has the worst English of any Swedish person I've ever met, so I can't confirm it, but I'm convinced we share a moment. We hold our commemorative spurtles aloft and literally a dozen locals gaze on beatifically. Yes! "Scotland the Brave" is a great tune. And yes! I will have that dram of Gordon & MacPhail whisky, even though I've never liked the stuff.

There are three heats, each of 30 minutes. Nick Barnard of Rude Health is in the opener and he does his best to psych out the opposition by standing with his arms folded for the first half of his allotted time. Sprouted oatmeal tastes best when soaked in warm water for half an hour and then cooked briskly. The three judges circulate the room: the boss is Neil Mugg, a pastry chef at the Gleneagles Hotel, and he is flanked by Colin Bussey, an experienced industry caterer, and a pro mountain biker called Kenta Gallagher, who presumably eats a lot of porridge. "We don't want a grey colour," advises Mugg. "A nice golden-brown is ideal." Bussey adds, "And don't let them sit too long. I don't think anyone likes cold porridge." Gallagher keeps his own counsel.

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The second heat is today's group of death, featuring John Boa, Per Carlsson and Neal Robertson. Boa has a can of Irn-Bru on his table and it is unclear whether he is drinking from it or cooking with it; it emerges later that he is doing both. His method is deceptively sparse: he uses Hamlyn's medium oatmeal, water from a jerry can and he tosses everything by eye into a steel pan. Earlier, he told me he cooks his porridge for 15 to 18 minutes. I share this information now with Ian Bishop, the veteran of all previous World Porridge Making Championships. "Fifteen minutes!" he splutters. "No, he does not. It'd be paste if you cooked it that long. Tell him he's full of shite. And he puts far too much salt in."

Salt – too much or not enough – is the fallback cuss of the day and no one wants to admit explicitly how much they put in. For Liz Ashworth, a food writer, the ideal amount is "a tad"; Robertson prefers "a dod"; Simon Rookyard, the PhD student, elicits gasps in the audience when he reveals he uses "18 pinches". Salt is, however, a necessity, and the most compromised competitor is Dr Izhar Khan, a mild-mannered NHS renal consultant. "I'm a kidney doctor, so I normally tell my patients not to eat salt, but today I'm practising what I don't preach," he says. "Personally, I like porridge to have the saltiness that you taste on your lips after a good run."

I'm up in the final heat, alongside Rookyard and Dennis Gilliam, one of the founders of Bob's Red Mill, dressed in a slate grey tunic with a Golden Spurtle stitched on the sleeve, in honour of the company's victory in 2009. If there was residual doubt how seriously I am taking the competition, it doesn't last long. Within five minutes, I am flustered and sweat drips from my forehead onto my workstation, dangerously close to my pan. This is probably not what Dr Khan had in mind. I start by putting on my gajar ka halwa porridge – official title: carrot porridge with cardamom, saffron and caramelised pistachios – and then turn my attention to my traditional entry. I'm using Macroom oatmeal, donated by Jeremy Lee, which comes from the last stone mill in Ireland. Its production is overseen by Donal Creedon, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Macroom's founder Richard Walton. It has a subtle, toasted flavour that comes from being gently heated for two days: it's delicious, and almost impossible to overcook.

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Which somehow I do. My concentration drifts as I flash-caramelise the pistachios in a frying pan, and the oatmeal tips over from being just right – it should drip leisurely off the back of a spoon – to being something closer to wet sawdust. I'm happier with my carrot porridge, which I finish with a sprinkle of saffron as the clock strikes 30 minutes. As soon as it's over, three plates vanish to the judges' room, where they will be assessed anonymously, and fellow competitors and onlookers hunch over your pans with their spoons to taste the remains.

Tim Lewis puts the finishing touches to his creation at The World Porridge Making Championships in Carrbridge, Scotland, October 2014
 

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"Now, that's interesting," says Ian Bishop, Mr Porridge, nibbling at a mouthful of my traditional Macroom oatmeal.

"You like it?" I ask.

"No," he shoots back, eyes darting. "I said it was interesting. I've never tasted anything quite like that."

Part V: The golden spurtle is decided

The first announcement is for the five porridge makers who will contest this afternoon's final. They will once again cook their traditional porridge and a winner will be crowned. Our speciality entries will be judged on what we produced in the heats and we will have to wait until the end of the day to find out that result.

Nick Barnard's name is called for the final five: he makes a show of surprise, but the effect is diminished by the fact that he has already retied his apron and has a bowl of his sprouted oats soaking in warm water in the prep room. Rookyard's made it, too, along with Dr Khan and Liz Ashworth. The last name called is Neal Robertson's and he gives Barnard a relieved bearhug. To no one's great astonishment, I do not make the shortlist. Neither does Per Carlsson, but it takes a few seconds for the assembled throng to realise that John Boa hasn't emerged from the heats either. There will be a new champion of the Golden Spurtle.

Boa, it turns out, actually burned his porridge to the pan. He took his eye off the oatmeal while he roasted some hazelnuts, tossing in a dash of Irn-Bru for extra sweetness, and the mixture caught on the bottom. He is unable to hide his disappointment. "It's the wine I drank at the reception last night, followed by a couple of pints of beer and not a huge amount of sleep," Boa admits. "For all I've said not to be complacent, I was a little complacent."

For the final, the Village Hall is standing-room only. Again, Barnard spends the first half of the time allocation standing insouciantly by his station. The rest of the finalists peer into their saucepans, spurtling the bubbling, volcanic, grey matter furiously. Porridge-making will never rate highly as a spectator sport, but there is a small burst of excitement as the clock ticks down to zero. The judges get theirs and the rest of us congregate for a taste of the dregs. The variety from the five entrants is remarkable: Dr Izhar Khan's is loose and sloppy, almost imperceptibly salted; Rookyard's is as firm as a bosom. Barnard's is probably my favourite: somewhere in the middle – as Goldilocks once dictated – with a delicate flavour and seasoned to perfection.

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The judges, however, do not agree. "The 2014 World Porridge Making Champion is," Neil Mugg pauses and exhales, for the benefit of the one camera crew, "Dr Izhar Khan." The good doctor seems in shock. He's been saying all day that he dreams of taking the Golden Spurtle back to "the Granite City" and it occurs to me now that I've no idea where that is. Pittsburgh? Peshawar? Aberdeen, disappointingly. The speciality category is shared between two winners, one savoury, one sweet: a wild mushroom risotto with lemon and thyme by Chris Young, a chef who now runs an oatcake company; and a sticky toffee porridge with dates and whisky created by a Scottish-Italian food blogger who lives in Los Angeles called Christina Conti.

Barnard looks like he's watched someone take a chainsaw to his Cessna. Did he try Dr Khan's porridge? "I did." And what did he think? "It was not to my taste. But congratulations to him." Will this set back the launch of Rude Health's sprouted oatmeal? "We are not actually launching sprouted oatmeal. We are launching sprouted rolled oats, which are sensational. So, no, not at all. Whether I'll come back next year, I'm getting a bit old for this, so maybe someone else in the team will come up and compete. My fifth year – could I take the strain?"

I know how Barnard feels. It has been a stressful, even emotional, day and I, too, am contemplating my future in competitive porridge-making. I collar Mugg outside the judging room and ask if he has any feedback. It takes him a few moments to recall my entry among the near-40 bowls of porridge he has tasted today. "Did that have the saffron on the top?" he asks. "I remember writing: not the best use of saffron. But the dish tasted better than it looked. Please don't think that's harsh. And I did think your portion size was quite good, because some of the bowls were huge."

When the stand-out quality of a plate of food is that there's not very much of it, it's hard not to be crushed. My hand tightens around my spurtle, but Mugg probably has a point. And, if I learned one thing about porridge during a three-month odyssey it is this: we will never reach consensus on the right way to prepare it. For some it will be oatmeal lovingly tended on the stove for half an hour; for others it will be a cup of Oat So Simple blasted in the microwave. Heston Blumenthal puts Helix pomatia, the vineyard or Roman snail, in his; Noma's René Redzepi simply adds butter and a few flecks of sea salt. Porridge is intensely personal and all that matters is that you like it, that whomever you make it for likes it.

For many of us, porridge will be one of the first foods we eat, as babies, and perhaps one of the last foods we consume, as we bumble into old age. Perfecting the recipe might just be a lifetime's quest.

Epilogue: 10 October, 2014

As it turns out, however, my retirement from competitive porridge-making lasts only six days. On World Porridge Day – or 10 October as it is commonly known – I head to Rude Health HQ in Fulham to take part in the London Porridge Championships. The format this time is simpler: 20 minutes, one bowl of porridge, anything goes. I decide to dust off a dish I had tried in practice but never quite mastered. It's a shameless homage to David Chang's Momofuku restaurants in New York, splicing together a few of what Chang calls their "bad pseudo-fusion" recipes and applying it to porridge. The oats are cooked in cereal milk – milk that has been steeped in roasted cornflakes, with brown sugar and salt – and then stirred through with stewed Bramley apples, a powerfully umami paste called butterscotch miso and sprinkled with cinnamon.

Sounds good, right? This time the judges agree and I place second from 12 entrants, just one point behind the winner, a nutrition coach and personal trainer called Adam Stansbury, who makes a pimped-up porridge topped with raw Zambian honey and Peruvian dark chocolate with lime and sea salt. I'm a little disappointed, but vindicated, as well. It shouldn't matter, and it isn't going to get me any brownie points on Judgement Day, but I can't help it. After all, being officially the second best porridge-maker in a city of 8.4m people has a decent ring to it, too.

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