Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Perfect parritch – beer optional

November 13th, 2017

090I ALWAYS appreciate letters I receive from readers. The most recent was sent by a Group of Oldies. They gave no address so I am acknowledging their kind thoughts here. They ask if robins are “sometimes violent wee birds as they always look so timid”.

Robins are territorial birds and, especially in winter, aggressively defend their territory and their food source, chasing off intruders. If pushed to the limit they will fight to the death. They may look timid and pretty on a Christmas card but the reality can be very different.

It is the season for porridge – the halesome parritch, chief o’ Scotia’s food – as Burns wrote in The Cotter’s Saturday Night.

Jamieson, in his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, describes it as “oat meal, with milk or beer, to breakfast”. F. Marian McNeill’s excellent book The Scotch Kitchen, describing the diversity of Scotland’s culinary heritage, mentions that porter and small brisk beer used to be popular accompaniments.

Auld Hornie
The simple ingredients are measured by volume rather than weight – one cup of porridge oats to two cups of cold water. It should hardly be possible to spoil it in the cooking but, in my experience, if it is not stirred throughout, lumpy porridge may result.

The last ingredient of a pinch of salt, preferably sea salt, should be added when the porridge begins to bubble. How large a pinch of salt depends on trial and error and personal taste.

Macdonald Douglas in The Scots Book, published 1935, wrote – If you cannot eat porridge without committing the ghastly sin of putting sugar on it, then don’t eat it at all. My sentiments entirely.

It’s not surprising that such an essentially Scottish dish has its own traditions and superstitions.

For fear of calling up the devil porridge should always be stirred clockwise and with the right hand. Stirring widdershins – the contrary way – will invoke Auld Hornie and land you in all manner of trouble.

That has always seemed a bit hard on corriefistit (left handed) cooks whose natural direction of stirring, I should have thought, was anti-clockwise. The adjective means wrong handed and reflects another Scottish superstition that the left hand is the hand of justice, with all that that implies. I’ve confidently stirred my porridge a’weys and never suffered any ill consequences.

For reasons lost in the mists of history porridge is not “it”, as erroneously referred to above, it is “they” or “them” and they should be supped (never eaten) standing – possibly affirming the old Scottish proverb, a staunin’ sack fills the fu’est.

One of my Loanhead uncles stood to his porridge, supping them standing at the dining room mantelpiece. Whether he did this only when I was visiting to add a sense of atmosphere to the meal, or he always did, I never thought to enquire. He supped them with a traditional horn spoon, dipping each spoonful into a separate cup of cream. I was too small to reach as high as the mantelpiece and had to defy tradition.

Toddy time
Staying in the same idiom, the Doyenne seemed to be starting a nasty hoast, or cough, and I decided to make her a hot toddy. I’m on home ground here.

Into a tall tumbler squeeze the juice of half a lemon; add a desert spoonful of heather honey and pour on two fingers of your favourite whisky. Top up with near boiling water, stir briskly until all the honey has melted and remove any lemon pips.

Drink the toddy when you are comfortably tucked up in bed and, before you know it, you’ll be sleeping like a blameless bairn.

A reader wrote to tell me he had purchased a new spurtle – or should it be spirtle, or perhaps spurtill? It all depends on which Scottish dictionary you consult.

Dr Jamieson describes the item as an iron spattle for turning bread. I’ve seen them for sale in Taylor’s Auction Rooms, in Montrose. They are long handled, flat, iron implements, often with a heart-shaped head, for flipping over bread or bannocks as they bake.

But my correspondent’s spurtle is a turned, wooden stick, 11 Scotch inches long, for stirring porridge as it cooks. Like me, you might wonder how the word evolved from theivil, the even older Scotch word for the same implement. In Shetland they call it a gruel-tree which just shows how the Scottish language throws up paradoxes to confuse us.

The new spurtle is a replacement for a much cherished one he used every morning for 55 years, starting his day with a sustaining bowl of porridge. The old one, he explained, had been retired measuring 7 inches, which equates to four inches of erosion over the period – that’s an inch every 14 years.

Would he live long enough to see an inch off the new one, he wondered? A plate of porridge every morning, a good dram before bedtime and a dog to walk three times a day – with a little bit of luck, God willing, he just might.

Written on Monday, November 13th, 2017 at 7:11 pm for Uncategorized, Weekly.