Tag Archives: oats

To Make Sowans

Last post I gave you a potted history of sowans, the Scots drink or flummery made from the starch left clinging to oat husks after the oats were threshed after harvest. Well, since then I have been doing a little experimenting, and have – I think – successfully made some. It’s taken a couple of goes, but I reckon I have a good practical method for you, should you fancy having a crack of making it yourself.

In the main, oat husks are used, but I saw other accounts of sowans making and I saw that some recipes used a proportion of whole oat groats, oatmeal or porridge oats. Other recipes – and it turns out that a similar dish in Wales is made1,2 – using buttermilk or whey instead of water to kickstart the fermentation. One modern recipe by Scotland-based chef Craig Grozier uses whey and salt3; the salt providing an excellent environment for the lactic acid bacteria present in the oats and the whey, hastening the fermentation and ensuring the sowans would not be infiltrated by some other spoilage organism. I’ve made sourdough starters enough times to trust the oats and water to work their own magic, to test this, I designed a simple experiment with three conditions:

  1. Oat husks and water;
  2. Medium cut organic oatmeal and water; and
  3. Oat husks plus one tablespoon of the oatmeal, to make up for the fact that the husks may be lacking in healthy bacteria and fungi. Adding some organic oats might help things out.

I left the sowans to ferment for seven days, after which I tasted the liquid and it was far too sour for my liking, but I was impressed with how well it all worked: the sour-sweet oaty smell give off was certainly not unpleasant. It turned out that actually one is not supposed to drink the sour liquid: it should be poured away and fresh water mixed in.4 I was rather surprised as to how much starch came out of the husks.

Emboldened, I tried again, this time with two conditions: one with water and organic oatmeal and the other exactly the same, except for a couple of tablespoons of the sour liquid from the first experiment, to give the sowans a boost. Note I didn’t use oat husks, and there are three reasons for this:

  1. You get very little starch from them, and we are no longer living in the kind of poverty that existed in Scotland two or three centuries ago;
  2. Oat husks are difficult to buy – though I did manage to get some from the Malt Miller – these oats weren’t organic however, and may have had traces of pesticide and fungicide that might kill the natural community of microbes living on the oats;
  3. Because they were so light, it was very difficult to keep them submerged under the water, and consequently, mould grew on any husks floating on, or touching the water’s surface.
Sowans suspended in water ready to be made into porridge or flummery

I gave it a shorter fermentation time and the results were great: sowans as a drink, i.e. the sour water decantated off and the sediment mixed into fresh water.  It was tart, surprisingly sweet (especially the one with the starter) and had a good, raw oat flavour. It would be great to use in a smoothie, or just sweetened with a little maple or agave syrup. However it was the settled sediment that I was more interested in and was looking forward to making the sowans porridge and the cold flummery.


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I was very pleased with the results, and I present them for you below. Whether you make the drink, the porridge or the flummery, the basic recipe is the same. It makes 550ml of drinking sowans or around 450 ml of porridge or flummery. I ate the porridge with treacle and milk, and I ate the flummery with raspberry jam, and I enjoyed them both. I think the flummery would be great flavoured with sweetened raspberry purée or orange flower water.

Basic ingredients:

150 g organic medium oatmeal

650 ml cool water

2 tbs of the clear liquid from a previous batch (optional)

For sowans porridge or flummery:

2 dsp sugar

½ tsp salt

A smidge of oil (for the flummery)

Place the oats, water and starter (if using) into a tub or jar and stir well. Cover the jar with a square of fabric secured with an elastic band. Leave to ferment for four days, giving the mixture a good stir every other day: give the liquid a sniff or a taste; it needs to have a definite acid tang.

When you are ready to strain your sowans, set a fine sieve or a colander lined with a sheet of muslin over a bowl and pour in the mixture. You might have to add a little water to rinse out all of the meal. Make sure you press the meal with a ladle to get as much sediment out as possible.

If you want drinking sowans you are now done, and it can be used now or stored in the fridge.

Cooked sowans ready to eat as porridge or set into flummery

For the porridge or flummery, leave the sowans to settle for 1 or 2 days, pour away the liquid, reserving it to use like buttermilk in another recipe. Don’t worry if there is a small layer of liquid remaining. Give it a good stir and pour into a saucepan; you should have around 150 ml of sediment. Add double the volume of water, plus the sugar and salt, and cook over a medium setting, stirring all the time until the sowans thickens – it will soon become very thick and glossy. If it seems too thick, add a little more water. It should be ready in 7 or 8 minutes.

For porridge: pour into bowls and eat with treacle and milk, or whatever you usually eat with your porridge.

For flummery: pour into a mould or moulds, I used teacups brushed lightly with oil. Cover them and refrigerate overnight before turning onto plates.

References

  1. Sowans. People’s Collection Wales https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/513127 (2016).
  2. White Sowans. People’s Collection Wales https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/513062 (2016).
  3. Mervis, B. The British Cook Book. (Phaidon, 2022).
  4. Fenton, A. Sowens in Scotland. J. Ethnol. Stud. 12, 41–47 (2013).

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Filed under Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Puddings, Recipes, Scotland

Sowans / Sowens

Experiments are under way!

Live-fermented foods are becoming more and more popular here in the UK. We seem to have embraced sourdough bread and its heady community of wild yeasts and bacteria; a community of microbes that not only leaven the dough but also provide that distinctive flavour. They also digest the gluten and other constituents in the flour, making it easier on our own stomachs. The microbes also create nutrients such as vitamins and essential amino acids, and make the food inhospitable to other microbes which would otherwise spoil it; a necessity in a world before refrigerators and freezers. Another live-fermented food is sauerkraut, traditionally made with cabbage, flavoured with caraway, and there are also fermented drinks like kefir (fermented milk) and kombucha (fermented sugar or honey, and tea) which are available in almost every supermarket and grocer’s shop around the country.

I think for many of us in the UK, all of this enthusiasm for live ferments looks like a bit of a fad, despite the growing evidence that foods that contain live cultures of fermenting microbes are very good for us. One reason why some regard them with suspicion is that in the UK we have never had a culture – as it were – of consuming these sorts of foods, except perhaps yoghurt, which unfortunately is all too often laced with sugar, had its fat skimmed away and its healthy microbes killed by pasteurisation.

But the thing is, we did have a culture of eating live-fermented foods, we have simply lost it; but the more I read old cookery books or manuscripts, the more I come across examples of these types of foods and drinks. One of these foods has recently captured my imagination, and that is the Scots fermented oat ‘milk’ or porridge called sowans (sometimes spelt sowens, and pronounced ‘soo-ans’). Sowans goes by a couple of other names; it is called subhan or súghan in Gaelic, and is known as virpa on the Shetland Isles.1

I discovered it leafing through the classic The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian McNeill.2 She describes how it was made: steeping the inner husks of the whole oat grains in water for several days in a large jar called a sowans-bowie until it soured, before being passed through a sieve.3 The resulting liquid would be left to settle for a day or so, where there would be a layer of white starch at the bottom. The liquid would be decanted off, and the starch cooked and eaten like porridge. Reading it, I simply could not understand how a foodstuff could be made just from the oat husks, known as sids in Scots.2 The husks are obviously inedible so how could a porridge or oat milk be made from them?

After a little more detective work, I found that the husks do contain some residual starch. As the oats are threshed to remove their husks, which is a quite violent process, inevitably some of the seed would be left attached to the husks. By mixing the husks in water, the starchy seed residue becomes suspended in the liquid and the natural yeasts and bacteria present on the husks begin to ferment it. After a few days – anywhere between 3 and 14 days depending upon time of year – the mixture becomes sour, rather like, I suppose, a sourdough starter, and then passed through a fine sieve. The milky liquid was drunk as it was, or the starch was allowed to settle so it could be used to make a porridge and eaten with salt, treacle or sugar. The decanted liquid wasn’t wasted, by the way, it was used to make sowans scones, where it was used rather like the buttermilk in regular scones.2 The fermented husks would sometimes be formed into cakes and baked. More often, though, they were fed to pigs or chickens.4

Oat husks

As a foodstuff, sowans is associated with harvesttime and commonly eaten by oat farmers. It is also associated with Hallowe’en, which falls not too long after harvest and the harvest festival. By making sowans, farmers were able to extract every scrap of carbohydrate from the sids that were left behind, after they had sold their crop. In Ireland, sowans was drunk or eaten in some parts of Ireland on St. Brigid’s Day in February.5

It was regarded as good for one’s health – and no doubt it was! The starch would be a precious source of energy and the microbes, and the products of the microbes’ metabolism, provided a whole suite of nutrients. ‘Some authorities claim it had sexual qualities.’ This seems to be because of its resemblance to semen when taken as a drink, which went by the name ‘Bull’s Semen’ or ‘White Bull’s Milk’ in some places. I’ve found one mention of farmlads teasing and goading young women, saying “I’ll be at you wi’ me sowans.”6,7


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Sowans was particularly associated with Christmas. I found an article in The Family Friend, published in 1861, describing sowans drinking on ‘Auld Yule morning’. The author is simply known as ‘A.H.’. It says it was enjoyed all year round, but at Yuletide it was consumed only as a milky drink. In fact it was customary, and everyone was expected to drink some sowans out of bickers (beakers), “[n]ot that any of us were immoderately fond of sowans”, said one. That said, folk did get a taste for it and ‘there was a good rivalry, too, amongst the sowans makers.’8

After finding all of this out, I hope you can see why I was so intrigued by this unusual food. Determined to make some, I managed to get hold of some oat husks – and they are not easy to get hold of these days! I am currently part way through having a go at making sowans. They are not quite ready to drink or eat, but things seem to be working well. I shall report back soon with the results of my little experiment and hopefully a usable recipe.

Fermentation is occurring!

References

  1. Fenton, A. Sowens in Scotland. J. Ethnol. Stud. 12, 41–47 (2013).
  2. McNeill, F. M. The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes. (Blackie & Son Limited, 1968).
  3. Dawson, W. F. Christmas: Its Origin and Associations (Illustrated Edition). (e-artnow, 2018).
  4. Macdonald, F. Christmas, A Very Peculiar History. (Salariya Book Company Limited, 2010).
  5. Nic Philibín, C. & Iomaire, M. C. M. An exploratory study of food traditions associated with Imbolg (St. Brigid’s Day) from The Irish Schools’. Folk Life 59, 141–160 (2021).
  6. Douglas, H. The Hogmanay Companion. (Neil Wilson Publishing, 2011).
  7. Asala, J. Celtic Folklore Cooking. (Llewellyn Publications, 1998).
  8. A.H. Auld Yule; Or Christmas in Scotland. Fam. Friend Ed. by R.K. Philp (1861).

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Irish Treacle Bread

As I write this, we are still in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown. Everyone is baking bread and I must say it is lovely to see people making time to bake during these strange times. Many home bakers have resorted to making sourdough because one of the most difficult items to get hold of at the moment is bakers’ yeast. This is infuriating to regular bakers, as is the lack of string bread flour, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. Delicious Irish soda bread requires neither bread flour nor yeast, instead regular plain flour and a chemical raising agent. it’s perfect if the thought faffing about with sourdough starters is too much to bear. There are no proving stages and it is made in a trice, baking in just a little over half an hour.

Irish soda breads originated in eighteenth century America when settlers discovered that potash made an excellent instant chemical leavening agent. Forever ingenious, the early Americans worked out a way to refine the process easily and instead used bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). It caught on big time, especially because it meant travelling folk could made bread quickly and easily without the need to for long fermentations. It wasn’t before long that news of this magic raising agent got to Britain and Ireland.

Up until that point, the Irish and Scottish were used to dealing with very low gluten flours such as oat and barley, because they grow well in northern latitudes. Even flour made from wheat grown in Southern England had a low gluten content (our modern plain flour) and although great for pastry, it was never going to make the pillowy fluffy loaves that we think of as standard today; for that, high gluten flours imported from Canada were required. This lack of stretch from their doughs and batters prevented the slow-release bubbles produced by yeast from growing and remaining stable; it made much more sense to make unleavened breads and griddle cakes. These new baking soda leavened breads however, suited their low-gluten flours very well, and they were infinitely adaptable.

Soda breads are different to regular breads, they very crumbly, so a sandwich would be disaster, but they are great with soup, especially when still a little warm.

A cousin to soda bread is treacle bread which I think this is much superior so I thought I would share with you my recipe for it because I think it’s the best of all soda breads, and I have been making it a lot over the last couple of months.

With this treacle bread, you get a mild bitter sweetness and a lovely brown colour from the treacle, and a good nutty chew from the oats. It’s like a giant delicious cakey digestive biscuit and it goes excellently with a good farmhouse Cheddar or Stilton cheese.

It is easy to make, and it is easy to make substitutions too: buttermilk is tricky to get hold of in the United Kingdom at the best of times, so go for a mixture of milk and yogurt, or just milk. If you can’t find plain flour, use self-raising and add just one teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to the mix. Medium-ground oatmeal can also be substituted for porridge oats.

Makes one large round

250 g plain flour

250 g medium oatmeal

1 tsp salt

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

2 tbs black treacle

250 ml buttermilk, or 200 ml milk and 50 ml yoghurt

Preheat your oven to 200°C and line a baking tray with a sheet of greaseproof paper

This could not be simpler: mix the flour, oats, salt and bicarbonate of soda in a mixing bowl, make a well and add the treacle then the liquid(s). Mix with a wooden spoon and when you have brought it together, tip onto a floured surface and knead just once or twice.

Make into a round, place on the baking tray and cut a deep cross in the dough going from edge to edge. Quickly slide into the oven on the centre shelf and bake until golden brown, around 30 to 40 minutes. Give it a little rap on the base with your knuckle – if it sounds hollow, it is done.

Cool on a rack.


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Filed under baking, bread, Britain, food, General, history, Ireland, Recipes, Teatime