Bag of Macroom Irish Oatmeal

Issue No. 83: Macroom Irish Oatmeal

Macroom Irish oatmeal from Walton’s Mill is to Quaker Oats what Parmigiano-Reggiano is to the pre-grated parmesan in the green can. It’s made with really good oats and milled on centuries-old stone mills. The result is nutty, toasty, rich, intense flavor that redefines what oatmeal can be.

Miller Donal Creedon personally inspects every pound of oats at the farms before he buys.

Donal buys only oats grown using organic, or transitional (to organic), techniques. Since the quality of every year’s crop varies depending on the weather and the skill of the grower, Donal is adamant about going on site to inspect every bushel he buys. “I would always know the farm it’s grown on. And I would never buy oats on the phone,” he said seriously. He paused for a minute, chuckled, and mentioned: “Everyone has good oats over the phone.”

The second key to the quality of the Macroom oatmeal is toasting. Once the oats have been brought to the mill, they’re toasted over moderate heat for two full days to enhance their flavor. There’s a delicate, but distinct, toastiness in the smell of the meal, a toastiness that’s taken through to the flavor of the cooked oatmeal. All you have to do is hold the bag up to your nose and you’ll know what I mean. As Donal says, “A blind man can tell you the difference.”

Then there’s the actual milling, which is radically different from modern methods.

Only the Waltons (and possibly one other mill) still stone grind the oats. Nearly all the others are working with the faster, more expedient option of roller mills. Essentially, Macroom is still milled using 19th century methods. “If I were a farmer,” Donal says with a smile, “it’s as if I were still plowing with a horse.”

The mill sits just a few blocks off the central square in the town of Macroom, which lies on the road from Cork City up to Killarney and County Kerry. Macroom is known in Ireland as a mill town and the Walton family has been actively engaged in milling work since the 1700s, when Richard Walton set his first pair of stones. Donal is Richard’s great, great, great, great grandson. “It’s been in the family since 1832, since it was built,” Donal told me. Back then there were probably a dozen other similar mills at work in Macroom; today, Walton’s is the only one remaining.

If you’ve never visited an old mill, it’s quite a sight for Americans used to factories filled with shiny steel equipment and complex electrical panels. Instead, you find yourself in a setting that looks like . . . well, it looks like it was built a couple hundred years ago. Which, in this case, it was. Like all mills of its era, Walton’’ was originally water powered. The transition to electrical took place only toward the end of the 20th century. The mill is three stories tall and built almost entirely of wood; when it starts to rain outside, the patter echoes politely through the whole building.

As they have been since 1832, the toasted oats are carried up to the top floor, then poured into the hoppers. From there they pass through a series of wooden spouts and old pulleys through which gradually work their way through the millstones and finally the sifters. At the end of the process you have wonderfully aromatic, freshly ground oats. In the process, roughly half the weight of the grain is lost, either to chaff (which is sold off for animal feed) or in the form of dust. Not surprisingly, at the end of a day’s milling, the place is a mess. When someone in our group remarked that the mill doesn’t look big enough, Donal chuckled. “If you were the one cleaning it, you wouldn’t say that.”

Not only is the mill almost identical to what it was 150 years ago, but so too is the volume of its production. It takes Donal three days to do a ton. “A modern mill,” he adds by way of comparison, “will do a few tons in an hour. But because every aspect of the mill must be compatible with the others for it to operate properly, there’s really no way to increase production. There’s no point in trying to go faster,” Donal said, “because the output would be the same. You’d have to change everything in the mill. All the belts, all the gears, everything.”

Rolling Stones vs. Roller Mills

Both roller milling and steel cutting are modern innovations; neither would have been possible before the advent of the industrial revolution. To make “rolled oats” millers first grind the husks off the grain. The oats are then sliced, steamed to soften them and then finally, rolled flat. The highly technical term “smushed” keeps coming to mind: rolled oats are flat, soft, round, something like the seedpods of autumn elm trees without the wings. The process extends shelf life and speeds cooking time, but unfortunately, it can also damage flavor and texture. “Quick oats” are sliced and pressed even more thinly, making it possible to produce porridge (as the Irish refer to cooked oatmeal) in a matter of minutes.

Better are “steel cut oats.” After the husks are removed, the oats are simply sliced in half with thin steel blades leaving the grain looking a bit like halved grains of rice. Many oatmeal aficionados may know McCann’s Steel-Cut Irish oatmeal, which itself is certainly a good product, far better than standard industrial oatmeals. Porridge made from steel cut is more flavorful than that I’ve had from most all rolled oats. But it’s not stone milled.

Traditional stone milling as is done at Walton’s Mill grinds the oats instead of flattening them as is done by roller milling. Consequently their stone ground meal looks more like coarse, uncooked cornmeal. The oats’ natural oils are left in, so the meal is darker in color in both its raw and cooked states. The most important difference of course is in the way it tastes. Porridge made from rolled oats is, to my experience, generally bland, and softer of texture. Quick oat porridge is even less appealing. At best they seem to be vehicles to convey butter and sugar while providing a filling breakfast, but as far as actual flavor goes there’s not much there. By comparison porridge made from Macroom’s toasted and stone-ground oaten meal is almost another product altogether.

How do you make real Irish Porridge?

There is of course no one way “right” to make porridge—like paella, polenta and pasta, pretty much every oatmeal fan has his or her own preferred method. At Macroom, the Creedons recommend a ratio of four parts water to one part meal, then suggest adding more liquid if needed. Bring the water to a boil, then slowly add the oatmeal, mixing constantly to avoid lumps. Return the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. add a bit of salt to taste, then serve with soft brown sugar on top, and some cold milk on the side.

In Ireland, this method is known as making porridge “on water.” This is certainly the most popular method in Ireland. Still, a well-spoken minority advocates making porridge “on milk.” Dublin food writer Maureen Tatlow is adamant about using milk instead of water, or at the least, half of each. Having tried both, I’m inclined to agree with Maureen. I like the richer texture you get from cooking on milk.

One challenge with traditional oatmeal like Macroom is that it takes a bit longer to prepare in the morning than you may have time for. The Creedons deal with this by starting the process the previous evening. They bring the water to a boil, add the meal, bring it back to a boil then turn it off and let it sit on the stove covered overnight. Then in the morning, they just heat it up and eat it. Pretty quick all in all. Donal told me that in his father’s time, they used to mix a spoonful of meal with black tea. It’s the Irish version of Instant Breakfast.

How do you serve a proper porridge?

The standard Irish method calls for cream or milk, and what the Irish call soft brown sugar. The sugar is basically traditionally made brown sugar, the sort in which the molasses is left in rather than the commercial alternatives where it’s all removed then a modicum of molasses added back to give a bit of color.

Some people pour the cream (or milk) straight onto the bowl of oatmeal. Others like the liquid on the side: they sprinkle on the sugar, fill their spoon with hot oatmeal, then dip it into a bowl of cold cream or milk. If you’re after something really special, I’d have to say go with the cream; its richness triangles perfectly with the toastiness of the Macroom oatmeal and the sweetness of the sugar. The English like oatmeal with black treacle or golden syrup. Not being a sweet eater, I’m actually a little more inclined to the Scottish way of serving oatmeal, which seems to be limited to cream or milk and a little salt.