In 2015, Lisa Williams was vacationing in Scotland when she stumbled across a glitzy bagpipe procession and a line of people in aprons holding flags from countries around the world. She took a closer look, inquired around, and discovered it was a porridge parade, celebrating the contestants of a world porridge championship.
“And then you go into the village hall [where the competition is held], and it’s decorated in tartan and heather and with all the flags from all the people and their countries,” she says. “It was amazing. I was hooked. I just said to my husband that I want to take part in this. I want to do it.” Four years later, Williams returned to Scotland, and her porridge was crowned the best in the world. “When they called my name out, I was absolutely stunned,” she says.
Like Goldilocks chasing down that perfect bowl, Williams is among a dedicated class of professional and amateur cooks around the world who compete each year to serve the best bowl of, essentially, gruel. They gather in the small village of Carrbridge, Scotland, on the edge of a national park in the Scottish highlands, for the Golden Spurtle World Porridge Making Championship. Judges for the competition, which is split into “traditional” and “specialty” categories, are mostly recruited from the culinary industry, and rank each bowl by color, texture, hygiene, and taste. The “golden spurtle” refers to both the traditional Scottish utensil specifically designed for porridge-stirring, as well as the shape of the trophy awarded to winners.
What began as a tourism initiative in 1994 to attract winter crowds to the quaint, 700-person Scottish town has grown into an institution, drawing in hundreds of spectators and up to 30 competitors each year. “I read about it in the newspaper and thought that if this isn’t a joke and it’s for real, it’s the most silly and insane thing I ever heard,” says Saga Rickmer of Sweden. She signed up immediately, and went on to compete in the 2016 world championships and ultimately win the Swedish Porridge Competition, a national spinoff competition, in 2019.
This year, due to COVID-19, the competition will move online, with competitors submitting short video recipes and winners announced over social media on October 10 — World Porridge Day. But while the thrill of softening stodgy grains in real time might be missing, the weight of the endeavor seems to resonate more than ever. Anyone who has been cooking and recooking the same simple meals from pantry staples during the pandemic will understand the quest for the platonic ideal of gruel.
The 2020 competition will also be slightly different in that it will focus entirely on the specialty category, where pretty much anything goes. Competitors can add a bunch of milk, shape the oatmeal into tapas, brulee it, steam it, or bake it. Per Carlsson of Sweden snagged the 2017 specialty win with a cloudberry-liqueur porridge brulee. Neal Robertson from Scotland won in 2011 with a cinnamon and nutmeg-spiked porridge topped with a blueberry compote. Other wins have included a mushroom porridge torta in 2012 and a sticky toffee porridge in 2014.
Nick Barnard of London, a two-time winner in the specialty category, says the key to dressing up an award-winning dish is knowing what the judges like. “The Scots love sugar, salt, and fat,” he says. “So I’ll give it to them in spades.” Barnard won in 2019 with his maple pecan porridge, a mix of pecan butter, maple syrup, dry milk powder, and cream, all topped with pecans sauteed in ghee.
This year’s competition won’t include the traditional category, but normally competitors in this genre are required to make porridge with just three elements: oats, water, and salt. Minimally processed oats are a prerequisite; precooked oats like instant and rolled oats are not allowed. Almost everyone who has won has used steel-cut oats and soaked the porridge overnight.
While it may seem simple by comparison, the challenge — and honestly, the fun — of the endeavor lies in elevating what’s widely recognized as an archetype of culinary austerity into something worth awarding a large spoon-shaped trophy to. Many home cooks believe all oatmeal tastes mostly the same, but it’s a point of pride for a porridge connoisseur to rise above this stereotype to make a truly distinguished bowl of oats.
“Many older people have grown up with this traditional, gloopy porridge and have a distaste for it,” says Carlsson, who also won the traditional category in 2018. “But I usually give them a sample of my porridge to try, and they say, ‘This isn’t porridge. This is something else!’” At his bed and breakfast in southern Sweden, Carlsson used to rotate porridge duties with two friends, and guests always complimented their meals on days when he cooked. Now Carlsson is behind the stove nearly every morning. A small corner of the dining room is also demurely decorated with porridge paraphernalia: a spurtle, a ladle, Swedish porridge merch and slogans, plus Carlsson’s own book of recipes.
Fans generally believe that the ideal oat porridge should be thick enough to offer some resistance, but smooth enough to go down easily. There should definitely be salt, but not enough to make you reach for a glass of water. It should be thick enough, but not at all watery. Not too much, and not too little. Not too cold, not too hot — just as Goldilocks would have it.
“It’s fascinating. In a competition, porridge is cooked 24 different ways, and they all taste different,” says Robertson, who has competed for a decade and occasionally judges at the Swedish Porridge Championship.
Competitors cook porridge every day for months, even years, to drill down the minutiae of the stuff. “You start preparing pretty much the day of the competition for the next year,” says Williams. Carlsson even recruited outside help from Dr. Viola Adamsson, a medical doctor and food nutritionist who has written several books on porridge and made porridge for the Swedish Olympic ski team in 1998 and 2002. “She practically has a doctorate in porridge,” jokes Carlsson’s wife, Catarina Arvidsson. Carlsson and Adamsson trained via Skype and telephone several times a week for a month, perfecting the water-to-oat ratio.
Among niche porridge circles, conversation often lands on four critical elements: oat-to-water ratio, type of oats, and salt. “One part oats to three parts water,” Williams insists. “Soak the oats overnight and use more salt than you think you would. I use Maldon sea salt — the same salt the queen uses.” Williams prefers half steel-cut oats and half stone-ground milled oats from Hamlyns of Scotland. “You get a nutty texture, but it’s not completely nutty. It’s more of a smooth nutty,” she says.
Robertson agrees on steel-cut oats from Hamlyns, but he does one part oatmeal to 2.5 parts water. “I tend to use sea salt,” he says. “It’s a bit softer and a bit more forgiving. And you should always stir it anti-clockwise. It keeps the devil at the bay.”
Carlsson does one part oats and 4.5 parts water. “I cook it for at least 25 minutes, then it is allowed to swell,” he says. Unlike Williams and Robertson, Carlson uses Swedish steel-cut oats from Saltå Kvarn, which are creamy but toasted for a “nice burned flavor,” he says.
In opting for Swedish oats, Carlson throws down the gauntlet in a nationalist sub-debate among porridge cooks. “Countries mill their oats in different ways,” says Anna Louise Batchelor, who won the specialty title in 2009. “Bob’s Red Mill [in America], they sell a really lovely rolled oat that’s very coarse. It’s very shiny and flat and it takes a long time to cook. Scotland loves their salty oats. And in Sweden, their milling is quite rustic.” Batchelor prefers coarse oats from English brand Mornflake.
Even the namesake spurtle is a topic of debate. Unlike spoons, spurtles allegedly don’t drag and prevent lumps. Many swear by them. “If you want to whip porridge in a pan without getting it all over yourself, the spurtle is the best tool,” says Barnard. “It brings air and stops it from overheating at the bottom of the pan and distributes the salt.” In 2016, Bob Moore, the founder of Bob’s Red Mill, won using a handcrafted myrtle spurtle from Oregon, where he lives.
Charlie Miller, the current organizer of the competition, says more eccentric attendees often bring specialty equipment too. Pressure cookers, microwaves, and bain-maries are commonly spotted in the competition hall. “Neal Robertson one year brought water that he claimed came from a stream that fed his local whisky distillery,” Miller recalls. In 2018, competitor Lynn Munro brought oatmeal she milled herself and cooked it with water she harvested from the loch at her childhood home. One woman even grew her own oats for the competition.
“Some people are so serious, it’s quite charming,” Barnard says. “The Swedish dress up like Swedish milkmaids and make a lot of noise. Some people have spreadsheets. It’s a circus, really.” But competitors are accepted into the fold regardless of skill. “I met one man at the competition who had never prepared a bowl of porridge in his life,” Miller says, laughing.
Robertson commemorated his 2010 win with a tattoo reading “World Porridge Champion 10.10.10,” rousing envy among friends and competitors. “Neal Robertson had [a tattoo] and walked around showing it off. Then I thought I should get one as well,” Carlsson says. Shortly after his own win, Carlsson shocked his children by getting his forearm inked with the words “World Champion” spiraling around a ladle.
But beneath the braggadocio and heated competition, the Golden Spurtle is, at its heart, about a bunch of people hanging out in a room cooking oatmeal. “It’s just the best time,” says Rickmer, who often visits her fellow Swede, Carlsson, as a guest chef at his bed and breakfast. “Competing in porridge is so cozy and cute. Everyone is so nerdy, which I love.”
Even this year, as competitors dive deep into their individual porridge pots, in their own kitchens, in their own countries thousands of miles apart, they are bound by a shared appreciation of well-cooked grains and what they symbolize. “It’s an ancestral food,” says Barnard. “All cultures around the world have a type of gruel.”
As with any competition, there are plenty of tears and laughter. “When I won, I was absolutely stunned. My face was bright red and I almost burst into tears,” Williams says, beaming as she holds up her trophy. She says she plans on going back to Scotland as soon as the competition is held in-person again, this time to add a specialty category win to her victory in the traditional category. “I have my china all picked out already.”
Clarissa Wei is an American freelance journalist based in Taiwan.