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The Original Breakfast of Champions

Long before Wheaties, a.k.a. "Breakfast of Champions," there was the one, the only, the original, authentic breakfast of champions - oats.

Long before Wheaties, a.k.a. "Breakfast of Champions," there was the one, the only, the original, authentic breakfast of champions - oats.

Oats, oats and more oats fuelled the mighty Scottish Highlanders, huddled in their frigid stone cottages and castles, herding their great shaggy cattle around the wind-swept moors and slaying each other with clanging broadswords, if we're to believe the great myths and legends, and all the ensuing stereotypes.

Oats, oats and more oats also fuelled their Celtic cousins in Ireland, before spilling out into the nether regions of the rest of the British Isles, and then into the colonies clutched in the grasp of empire.

Oats, oats and more oats. Oat and groats. Steel cut oats. Rolled oats. Oats slowly milled between two great, round milling stones that grind the grain and retain the oat germ, the oat oil and the fibre that's so good for you.

Oats for your horse and cattle. And oats for hardy women and men who lived in and with the elements and found each day filled with challenges that demanded great physical endurance. Much like living at Whistler.

Luckily for everyone, Nesters Markets stretched across Sea to Sky's nether regions, from Whistler to Woodward's on Hastings, have a good deal on oats this week.

For only $5 you can pick yourself up two  - count 'em, two - bags of Rogers real oats.

These are not the indifferent, careless instant oats of our ADHD era, but the slow-cooking, authentic kind of oats that make you feel timeless, stress-free and as sturdy as a Highlander as you watch them burble away like a creamy hot mud pot at Yellowstone National Park, filling your cool November kitchen with delicious aromas from a long-ago world where life unravelled more poetically and mysteriously.

Boiling up a pot of oatmeal porridge on a cold winter's morning is good for the heart, too.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans considered oats a diseased form of wheat. Ha! What did they know?

Obviously not that oats contain about 17 per cent protein and about 7 per cent oil, a healthy form of oil, which makes them two to five times higher in fat than wheat, and accounts, at least in part, for the rich, foamy burblings when you cook good, hearty Scottish- or Irish-style oatmeal. (This unique and surprising action tends to make them boil over, so use a much larger pot than you think necessary to cook steel cut oats and the like.)

Nor did those Ancient Greeks and Romans know that oats contain an enzyme which digests fat, as noted by scientist and food wizard, Harold McGee, as well as phenolic compounds, which make for good antioxidants.

Oats' indigestible carbohydrates, called beta-glucans, absorb and retain water and give that characteristically smooth, rich consistency to hot oatmeal. They also reduce the risk of heart disease, especially when included in a low-fat diet. Otherwise known as soluble fibre, one serving of good oatmeal delivers about a gram of these heart-healthy fibres, or one-third of the recommended dietary requirements to reduce heart disease.

The high level of complex carbs along with all the water-soluble fibre generates an additional health advantage - good old oatmeal helps to encourage slower digestion and steady your blood glucose levels. What better natural antidote to our collective glucose/fructose addiction?

No wonder my granddad and so many other grandparents have aged so gracefully and healthily. They were all eating oatmeal for breakfast. Good coaches and athletes know the secret, too.

Never mind the oat-bran craze back in the 1990s that accompanied the US Food and Drug Administration ruling that products containing certain levels of oat bran and rolled oats could carry a special heart-healthy logo, I wonder why the heck aren't oats more common?

For one, McGee points out, oats, like barley, have no gluten-producing proteins, meaning they can't be made into "light-raised" breads - those raised with yeasts which we've come to accept as our main, nay, our only form of bread. Plus the husks on oat kernels really stick, making them difficult to process.

You might have discovered another downside if you've ever splurged on a tin of John McCann's Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal. The groovy, retro black and white tin, which recreates the company's awards from the 1876 and 1893 Philadelphia International Exhibitions, is almost worth the price alone (some $12). And the porridge itself, something like a miracle on Earth, will make you forget every penny spent, says the part of me that's Irish.

But because of all the fat in more whole-grained, natural oatmeal, like this one, it tends to go rancid unless you keep it in the fridge. Bob's Red Mill Scottish Oatmeal, also a good morning bet, has a caution to that effect, but the McCann one does not.

And so it was oh woe to us, who were foolish enough to keep the tin too long in the cupboard, savouring old McCann's steel cut oats and doling them out slowly for especially languid breakfasts, as we tend to do with stuff we deem special, that is, expensive, good Canadian kids that we are.

Given their health profile, oats have gained, if not celebrity status and their own Facebook page, at least more popularity in recent years in the form of granola, that old hippie mainstay, which has also been revisited as "granola bars".

These latter trickier-treats often contain huge amounts of corn syrup, glucose or fructose, or all of the above; "chocolate" drizzles and chips; and ersatz coatings of some kind of icing or "caramel" material, all of which instantly and effectively purge any oattish health benefits right down the tubes.

So buyer, beware. If you care not to partake of the more traditional forms of oatmeal, read thy labels and consider what you are really putting in to your body.

If you do take the high road and go the traditional route, think of this: the timeless Irish way of serving porridge is with fresh buttermilk - a bottle of Avalon will do fine, and as close as you'll get to Ireland here - or with fresh butter; or whole cream or milk, and a bit, a teeny bit, of brown sugar or honey.

May the road rise to meet. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, says the Irish blessing on my McCann tin.

Sounds to me like standing firm on a bowl of good oatmeal for breakfast.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who sometimes lets her Irish side out.




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