The Genesis of Porridge

Whatever our romantic notions of European peasant cuisine might be, they almost certainly don’t include enough gruel. Those delightfully thrifty offal dishes you choke down at street stalls and in little backstreet diners? Before urbanisation and centralised slaughterhouses, they were once-a-year treats, the only freshly steaming meat you’d ever eat. Fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables? Aside from the fact that raw fruit was once considered actively harmful to health, the juvenile state we eat most of our produce in is simply wasteful, a poor use of energy and time. A young pea straight from the pod is delightful, but that’s because it is mainly sugar; leave it on the plant long enough, and you have a suitably starchy pulse to see you through the winter, as a break from, yes, your gruel.

You can make gruel from any grain or pseudo-grain you like, ground or not, or even chestnuts. Before corn and therefore polenta came to Italy, and a long time before mechanisation made pasta a staple dish, the peasantry lived or at least survived on porridges of either buckwheat or chestnut flour; this is something you seldom see in modern temples to the cucina povera, for some reason. In Britain porridge tends to mean a sweet gruel, and it tends to mean oats, which collapse quite well into creaminess, especially with the addition of cream. The true Scottish way is to eat it with salt alone, of course – and maybe a tot of whisky. As I say, though, oats can take such meagre treatment; most other porridges need some sort of enlivening. I don’t know how long you could live on plain chestnut porridge alone, but it would certainly be long enough to wish you didn’t. Congee, the Chinese rice porridge, sounds a little more appetising, but that might be because the last recipe I read for it emphasised that it should be made with a good chicken stock; given that I would happily drink a good chicken stock by itself, this is hardly a fair comparison. A good white risotto is essentially a rice porridge, but again, that is enlivened with not just stock and wine but also large amounts of cheese and butter; given that I would happily … But I repeat myself.

I have always thought of porridge as quite a primitive thing, a slight misstep on the way to making bread, though I suppose it has just followed a parallel path. On the one hand, it is quick to make, and doesn’t need an oven; on the other, it requires  a good metal cooking pot, a comparatively advanced piece of technology.

The pernicious wheatphobia of the clean eating brigade has, anyway, led to a resurgence in the popularity of porridge, often made with so-called ancient grains, many of them varieties of wheat. I am currently eating a porridge made of buckwheat – which, despite the name, is actually a relative of rhubarb – not because I am avoiding gluten but because I like buckwheat, though not, it turns out, enough to enjoy eating it as a gruel, even with the addition of prunes and malt extract and various other favourite things of mine. Perhaps it needs a good chicken stock, or at least a slick of cream; perhaps eating gruel just isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. Perhaps for lunch I will eat something crunchy, and thank the stars I am not a medieval peasant, eating three bowls a day.


Oil & Vinegar

Back, recently, from a trip to Naples, where despite the pungent cheese shops, the dripping, writhing fish stalls, the oily black coffee, the dangerously rich ice-cream, the puffy delights of deep-fried pizza, the foods that really stick in the mind are the vegetables. (Well, the stewed tripe was pretty memorable, but that’s another story.) Like Sicily, Naples has always been poor, and even flour might be too expensive, especially once those polenta-eaters up north had got a taste for pasta. So the Neapolitans, derided as leaf-eaters (a lot of Italian regional prejudice seems to revolve around food), had to fall back on what they had – which, luckily, was an astonishing abundance of fruit and vegetables. The British version of Italian food has tended to focus on pasta, and the meat-and-cheese-and-olives side of antipasti – all delicious, of course, but they give a somewhat lopsided impression of the cuisine. The Southern love for bitter greens – at one meal, we had the Neapolitan signature, friarelli, as well as braised escarole and fiercely grilled radicchio (not green, true, but you get the idea) – is starting to make an impression here, which is good. It suits our vegetables, as well as the small-plate style a lot of newer Italians are turning to. The ubiquitous vegetable antipasti are perhaps a little naffer, but still worth checking out. No-one’s going to get excited about a roast pepper, but that doesn’t mean it’s not nice to eat.

A lot of this, though, does rely on the afore-mentioned astonishing abundance of fruit and vegetables, which, in most cases, are significantly better and significantly cheaper than you can get in Britain. In Naples, they pretty much give away that roast pepper – dressed heavily in oil, sprinkled with capers – which here would be ruinously expensive. So you get the slightly unpleasant spectacle of new London restaurants offering up cucina povera at new London prices – and doing it rather badly, because the raw materials weren’t good enough to start with. If your pepper isn’t beautiful, do something else with it – and accept that that something might not be especially cheap. Why should it be? It’s not YOUR peasant cuisine. Feel free to live on turnips and gruel. Anyway, for a dish that relies slightly less on freshness and quality (slightly, mind you), as well as appealing to the deep British love for sweet pickles, you could do a lot worse than caponata. I think originally Sicilian, we had this in Naples too, and it ticks a lot of Southern boxes – the vegetables, the sweet-and-sour flavours, the prodigal use of olive oil – though I warn you again that it won’t be very cheap. Buy the veg from a market or greengrocer, and the oil in large quantity from a wholefood shop, and you’ll lessen the burden slightly. Supermarkets seem to conspire against this kind of food.

This is a very Italian, high-summer caponata – they change the vegetables according to the season, little artichokes being a particular favourite. The only real constant is the agrodolce, sharp-sweet sauce. Feel free to sub in more ‘British’ veg (a glut of courgettes might find a home here) as you wish.
Makes a lot, but keeps well under its oil.
4 large mild onions, finely diced
6 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 red chilli, sliced
6 large vine tomatoes, diced, skins and seeds and all
200ml red wine vinegar
3-4 tbsps sugar or honey
Juice of two lemons
A handful of capers
A handful of raisins
4 aubergines, chopped into little dice
1 head of celery, trimmed and chopped into chunks
Chopped mint and parsley
Salt, pepper, and LOTS of olive oil

Make the sauce first. Sweat the onion, garlic and chilli (tuck in the vine from the tomatoes as well) in a hefty glump (bigger than a glug) of oil, until soft and nearly turning brown, then add the diced tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook down to a mush. Stir together the vinegar, sugar (or honey) and lemon juice, then add that too and boil down a little. Taste – at this point it should be too sweet and too sour, without enough salt to balance it. That comes later. Stir in the capers and raisins.

Put the diced aubergine in a colander and toss with a big pinch (about a tablespoon) of Maldon’s salt. Leave to drain for about half an hour. (This is NOT to get rid of ‘bitter juices’, but to lightly break down its spongy texture, drying it slightly and making it absorb less oil. It makes quite a difference.)
Meanwhile, heat another glump of oil in a frying pan and sauté the celery, in batches, until nicely browned. Scoop out with a slotted spoon (although you’ll probably still need to top the oil up) and chuck straight into the sauce. Do the same with the aubergines – which will need even more oil – when they’re ready.
Let the whole thing simmer for about ten minutes, then stir in the herbs (a good handful of each) and leave to cool to a warm room temperature, then check the seasoning. It might need a bit more salt, but there’s a lot on the aubergines. Eat with white bread and wine, and get it down your shirt. Get angry and go for a nap. You’re on holiday.