Porridge is a food that divides people. I was brought up to cook it in water with a generous pinch of salt until thickened and almost solid. We then sprinkled it with dark muscovado sugar and poured very cold milk round the edge.
The trick was to devour the porridge before the milk lost its chill, adding top-ups when necessary so that every mouthful was a contrast of hot and cold. My best friend's mum cooked hers in milk and she ate it without sugar or extra milk.
Later I shared a flat with someone who cooked porridge in a mixture of milk and water and ate it with a sprinkling of salt and a knob of butter.
I've taken to eating my winter porridge oats with plums stewed with scraps of ginger and palm sugar, also known as jaggery.I cut the plums in bite-size pieces for instant gratification and their addition turns a pleasantly dull warming breakfast into something rather special.
My other excess is a dollop of natural yoghurt but I also like a small jug of fridge-cold milk on the side. In the past I've grated apple into hot porridge, added blueberries - excellent because they soften and intensify flavour in the heat - and made fruit salad to eat at the same time. Unwittingly, I've tapped into the latest porridge craze.
If you linger at the porridge shelf of your local store, looking past the Quaker Oats, you will notice an outbreak of fruity porridge. Some, like Oatso Simple, a microwavable almost instant porridge flavoured with blackberry and apple, or raspberry, or golden syrup, key into our obsession with instant food.
For maximum excitement, this porridge is packaged in individual sachets, a classic example of excessive packaging if ever there was one.
As a huge fan of the muesli made by Dorset Cereals, I succumbed to their fruity porridge, which is probably the most expensive at an average £3 for 800g (from Waitrose, Sainsbury, Tesco, Morrison and Asda or visit www.dorsetcereals.co.uk.) It takes about 6 minutes to cook and during that time the mixture of jumbo oats for texture and Scottish rolled oats for creaminess, is coloured by the dried fruit. I liked the mixed berries best - dried cranberries, blueberries and raspberries - which swell and colour the porridge but for me it was spoiled by the inclusion of raisins which feature too in fruit & nut and apple & raisin. Or for a real blast in the morning why not add toasted seeds and goji berries, a mix between dried cherry and cranberry which contains 2000% more antioxidants than oranges and 500 times the vitamin C.
My favourite every day porridge is organic Flahavan's from Tesco at £1.79 per 1 kg (recycled) paper sack. (flahavans.com.) It only takes 3 minutes to cook and delivers all the texture and flavour of the finest rolled oats. When time isn't an issue, I like the anticipation of John McCann's steel cut oat meal. It takes 30 minutes for the pin meal to soften but its nutty yet creamy flavour makes it worth the wait. It comes in a beautiful silver and white 793g tin and averages a hefty £5. Available in selected Tesco and Sainsbury's stores.
The Scottish way
Heresy, perhaps, but both these Irish oats would be perfect for Atholl brose, the Scottish way of cooking porridge with honey and whisky. I make this rather wonderful winter weekend breakfast by cooking the porridge in the usual way then adding a tablespoon of honey before beating in a measure of whisky and two scoops of double cream per serving.