We grow more oats in Canada than anywhere else but Russia. Canada is the second largest producer – and the largest exporter – of oats in the world.
Mountains of our oats are turned into brand name breakfast cereals, oatmeal cookies and granola bars, as well as many raw oat products from rolled oats to steel-cut groats to instant porridge.
Saskatchewan grows about half the oats in Canada followed by Manitoba and Alberta at 18-20 percent each, with the remaining fraction grown by farmers in other provinces. The "oat belt" runs from the Red River Valley in southern Manitoba, up across Saskatchewan like a Miss Universe sash, and north to Alberta's Peace River Country.
According to historians, oats have been grown in Western Canada since the days of the fur trade; they were a major food group of European fur traders and their livestock. Oats were an important crop for the pioneers when, in the days before tractors, oats were the fuel for the horses and oxen who broke the land.
Many are the stories of struggling homesteaders reduced to eating porridge three times a day. Even the Scots could get sick of that!
Speaking of the Scots, oatmeal was the culinary touchstone of immigrants from Scotland, as we read in this except from They Cast a Long Shadow: The story of Moffat, Saskatchewan by Kay Parley:
"Oatmeal was the most popular food and there was porridge on every Scotch table for breakfast, always stirred, as it cooked, with a wooden spurtle. . . Oatmeal was used in scones, cookies, dumplings and puddings. It appeared in fish dishes and meat dishes. It was used to stuff the turkey. New potatoes were coated with it."
Leftover oatmeal was pressed into a wooden box and cooled, after which it could be sliced like bread. This would be fried up for supper or packed for a long journey by horse and buggy as a filling snack along the way, especially in wintertime.
Before we get cooking, here's a lesson in oat vocabulary:
* Oat groats or whole oats are the oat seed with the outer hull removed. They take the longest to cook and are often pre-soaked.
* Steel-cut oats (also called Irish oats or Scotch oats) are oat groats cut into smaller pieces by steel blades.
* Rolled or old-fashioned oats are whole groats flattened in a roller. They cook more quickly than groats.
* Quick oats are chopped groats flattened in a roller. Because they are small and flakey, they cook quite quickly.
* Instant oats are precooked so they can be prepared simply by adding hot water, and are often flavoured and sweetened.
Take note that oats have a high fat content and, once the hull has been removed, can go bad quite quickly. For this reason, most “raw” oat products are steamed and dried so they can be stored at room temperature. Some specialty mills sell un-steamed rolled oats, which have more flavour and nutrients, but should be stored in the freezer.
Here's a recipe for oatmeal made with groats. It's more time consuming than using rolled oats, but it's also more filling and flavourful. You might also like this recipe for chocolate oat clusters.
1/2 cup steel-cut groats
2 cups water
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup dried apples, chopped
1 tbsp honey
The night before, mix steel-cut groats with water and bring to a boil. Simmer 5 min. Remove from heat, cover and leave overnight.
In the morning, add another 1/2 cup water and bring to a simmer. Add the salt, cinnamon and dried apple. Cook, stirring, until desired porridge consistency is achieved. Stir in the honey and eat!
(This article first appeared in Grainews.)