Journey through the history of porridge, from Scotland’s rugged landscapes to the alpine world of Switzerland

Porridge, once widely viewed as a cheap, hardy sustenance, has become one of the world’s leading superfoods. We take a look at the complex origin story of this homegrown and global favourite, travelling from Scotland to Switzerland.

In the late medieval period, oatmeal helped Swiss farmers and their horses traverse the harshest Alpine peaks as they battled waist-deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. Today, workhorses in the Swiss Alps can still be seen with sacks of oats around their necks for feed, while oatmeal drizzled with honey or muesli is a breakfast staple found in most Swiss homes and cafes.

Photograph by GETTY images
By Be the Change
Published 13 Oct 2021, 10:33 BST

The faint smell of damp earth as oats bubble over the hob; the eye-stinging steam rising from a heaped bowl of beige, drizzled with honey; the heat fogging up a frosted kitchen window. And, once it’s finally time to eat, the warm, comforting sweetness spreading across your body like a heated blanket.

Porridge — traditionally oats simmered in milk or water — has been a breakfast favourite in UK homes for centuries. But compared to cereals like barley and wheat, oats took a long time to reach our tables. Thought to have originated in Western Europe, evidence of wild oats dates back thousands of years. Archaeologists believe, however, that while oats were permitted to grow among the more popular barley and wheat crops, they were rarely used for human consumption.

Like rye, it would take a few more centuries for oats to go from weed to cultivated crop. The Romans, in need of a cheap, weather-resistant crop to produce large quantities of animal feed, were the first to cultivate oats to feed their horses, mules and oxen. Being easier to peel than spelt, plague-resistant and easy-to-grow seed meant oats remained popular as animal feed for hundreds of years, although they were less commonly used for human consumption.

It was during the Medieval period in Scotland, where a lack of sun and high humidity allowed only the hardiest of grains to grow, that oats became an increasingly major part of people’s diets. Far more reliable than wheat or maize harvests in harsh weather, oatmeal — oats that have been dehusked, steamed and flattened — quickly became the staple food for the lower classes. Local variations such as gruel (a thinner version of porridge), sowans (a thick drink made from fermented oats) and hasty pudding (a thicker, sweeter porridge that doubled up as dessert) featured prominently in Scotland’s diet for the next 1,000 years. Today, porridge prepared with water and a pinch of salt is as much a symbol of Scotland as whisky, bagpipes and haggis.

But the history of this simple yet versatile grain doesn’t end at the Scottish border. In Switzerland, for instance, a country marked by equally harsh winters and mountainous terrain, filling and easy-to-prepare oatmeal helped farmers and their horses traverse Alpine peaks as they battled waist-deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. Today, workhorses in the Swiss Alps can still be seen wearing sacks of oats around their necks for feed, while oatmeal drizzled with honey and muesli topped with goji berries are breakfast staples found in most Swiss homes and cafes. Switzerland’s athletes are in on it, too: porridge is recommended for healthy pre- and post-training meals, thanks to its slow-releasing carbohydrates.

Indeed, it’s little wonder oats are so beloved. Packed with fibre, vitamin B and minerals like calcium, potassium and iron, they’re one of the most nutritionally valuable grains on the planet. They’re also particularly rich in beta-glucans — natural sugars that can protect the intestinal wall and lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

The growing appreciation for the oat grain is encouraging sustainable production methods, too, with companies moving to meet the demand of more environmentally friendly agricultural practices. Pioneering Swiss-based nutritional brand, Be The Change, for instance, which recently added porridge to its range of health products, only uses certified organic oats, meaning the grain is grown entirely GMO- and pesticide-free. All the ingredients — from the oats and milk protein to the goji berries and dates used to naturally sweeten its just-add-water porridges — are locally sourced from Swiss farms, and the packaging is entirely biodegradable.

The humble oat grain has come a long way — once widely seen as cheap sustenance for the working classes, it’s now becoming the health food of choice. In Switzerland, where oats have formed part of the culinary culture for centuries, the grain is experiencing its biggest resurgence since Dr Maximilian Bircher-Benner popularised muesli in the 19th century. With companies like Be the Change spicing up porridge offerings with organic cacao nibs and apple and dates, this age-old dish could pave the way for healthier, more sustainable breakfasts being the number-one choice in Europe and beyond. 

Be The Change, a pioneering nutritional company based in Switzerland, recently added porridge to its range of health products. All four of their flavours are packed with fibre and contain only the finest, purely natural ingredients, without additives or conservatives. 

Photograph by BE THE CHANGE

Timeline: the history of porridge


Roman period
In need of a cheap, weather-resistant crop to feed their animals, the Romans begin cultivating oats in large quantities.

Early Medieval period
Oatmeal appears in Scotland. A more reliable crop than wheat or maize in the country’s harsh weather conditions, oats are mixed with water and become a staple diet for the lower classes.

Late Medieval period
In Switzerland, oatmeal becomes a hit with farmers needing a substantial meal while traversing the Alps. Oats become a staple food for the working classes in Switzerland.

19th century
Swiss doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner popularises muesli (rolled oats combined with nuts, seeds and fresh or dried fruits), promoting oats as a healthy breakfast to the masses, including the upper classes.

Today
Nutrition experts like Be the Change recommend porridge sweetened with fruit and cacao as a healthy, energising superfood. Demand grows for environmentally friendly production practices.

For more information about Be The Change’s organic porridge and other nutritional products, visit bethechange.swiss

Follow National Geographic Traveller (UK) on social media

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram                                                       

Read More

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us

Subscribe

  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2016 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved