One week in the life of Lisa Williams, World Porridge Champion

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IMG_5767 Lisa Williams and some of her wooden Spurtles.

About three or four weeks ago, I contacted Lisa Williams of Stennetts Community Café to ask her if she was prepared to talk to me about her community enterprise. Her agreement was almost instantaneous but qualified: we would have to meet towards the end of October because,

“…we’re away for 3 weeks… and the weekend of 12th October, I’m competing in the world porridge championship, ‘The Golden Spurtle’[1]…”,

The Golden Spurtle?[2] I had heard of the event but knew almost nothing about it. Even the supposition that entrance to the competition was confined to those in Scotland clearly proved not to be the case as Lisa doesn’t claim any Scottish ancestry. I wished Lisa good luck and mentally sat back to await her return. But Lisa re-appeared in my life and everyone else’s, earlier than her anticipated arrival back in Trimley.  I listened to the “Today” programme on Radio 4 on Monday 14th October with astonishment. There was Lisa, the new holder of The Golden Spurtle, addressing the nation. In one seamless move, she had moved herself  into a different stratosphere.

When we finally met, all discussion about Stennetts Café flew out of the window. It was all about the Spurtle. Both Lisa and Steve, her husband, had the air of those whose feet had not touched the ground for some considerable time and their pleasure in Lisa’s achievement preceded them through the door. I had to fight against an urge to curtsy. Words jumbled out of their mouths as they both fell over themselves to tell the story of Lisa’s success. Information came in different strands as one would start to tell me how the proceedings were arranged and another gave details of who was involved before the other one talked about the dishes Lisa had delivered.  It was a glorious porridge compote, which left me almost as exhilarated as the Cook herself and deeply impressed by her manifold cooking abilities. The following description of who, what, where, why and when may be subject to future technical adjustment but for now, to start at the beginning seems the best way forward.

Lisa and Steve have been visiting Scotland for many years, following the example of her parents who choose it for their honeymoon. In 2015, they found their way to Carrbridge[3] in the Cairngorms and discovered the imaginative and fascinating international competition for ‘The Golden Spurtle’. They stayed to watch the competition and Lisa found herself seduced by the magical nature of the event. Although a seemingly simple and unique event, it is unashamedly serious in its intentions to promote Porridge, Scotland and Carrbridge.  It is an occasion where everyone from organisers to participants extends friendship and support to everyone else. It is important to remember that although everything is conducted in a good humoured and affable manner, this is an International competition. The Golden Spurtle follows each winner to their home for a year. It travels all over the world in its’ own special case, possessing the cachet of the Football World Cup amongst Porridge aficionados. Lisa evidenced the seriousness of the competition when she told me of one American competitor who brought his own water with him from the States, perhaps fearing his recipe might be adversely affected by a different source. Almost as an afterthought, she mentioned another competitor who grew a ton of oats and has to take them to one of the Scottish Islands to be milled. Such dedication proves the seriousness of the Competition.

Watching the event proved so enjoyable, she decided to put in an application to be considered as a contestant in 2016 and consequently, found herself in Carrbridge, Scotland in  the following year. Her first year as a participant was a good one especially when she found herself in the final, although on this occasion she didn’t win. However, such success was more than enough to encourage Lisa and she returned again in 2017 and 2018. She was not quite as successful, although one of her recipes for Porridge Muffins was praised and singled out by a former Head Chef of Gleneagles Hotel who took the recipe away for his own use. As Lisa said,

“For me, it was a good as winning.”

 Again, she was spurred on to carry on trying again in the 2019 Competition, the twenty sixth annual event, which came at the end of her Scottish holiday.  Thursday 10th October was the last day in their principle holiday cottage before they moved on Friday to one closer to Carrbridge in preparation for the competition.

 “It’s the same one the BBC2 use when they film Spring Watch, the one with the Fire Pit.”

Before heading off for the Spurtle celebrations, Lisa needed to take possession of her porridge oats, which had proved to be particularly elusive this year. She had scoured various Tesco stores in the Elgin area but  her preferred varieties  were all out of stock. As a final resort, she had to contact the manufacturing company, Hamlyns and it was over to their employee Tracey to deliver the goods which she did on the same Friday.

After this, it was time for the Spurtle celebrations to start. On the Friday evening, a Porridge Reception was held in the same Village Hall where the Championship would be held the next day. Small Scottish delicacies were offered in the form of canapes, including Haggis Bon Bons. All the competitors were present: eight from Scotland, six from England, five from Sweden, four from Canada, and one each from Wales, France, Belgium, Germany and Poland. Some contestants wear their national dress, while the Swedish contingent wear the blue and yellow colours of their national flag, the Scots usually wear their kilts. The English of course, don’t have a national dress. Hospitality flowed amidst good humoured conversation.  Then it was off to bed although Lisa confessed she didn’t sleep very well that night and was up early on Saturday morning at six o’clock to take a shower and prepare her boxes. Her sleeplessness was not a comment on the hospitality but possibly more a combination of heat and pre-competition nerves.

The six o’clock Saturday start was intended to see her prepped and ready for action by nine o’clock but as it turned out, she didn’t arrive at the Hall until much later but the boxes were packed and ready to go. She labelled everything in the order they were required and the ingredients were divided into the two parts of the competition, the traditional and for the as yet unknown finalists, speciality porridge dishes.  The competition is divided into five heats and there are two parts to each heat.

But before all the cooking starts, the Porridge Parade starts at ten o’clock. Lisa described how the Pipe Band started at the top of the hill by the old Pack Horse Bridge and proceeded to march in the smart kilted regalia best worn by the Scots. Their destination was the Village Hall. They were closely followed by the Judges and then the Competitors come next, many dressed in their national dress. This is when the Swedes don Viking helmets and shout stirring battle cries. Lisa affectionately described them as very friendly hooligans. All contestants carried their own Spurtle and sported aprons provided by the sponsors, Hamlyns, who are huge Scottish Oat producers. (At the end of the competition all participants receive a bag of oat related goodies from Hamlyns.) When everyone reached the front of the Hall, they each receive a small dram of whisky or Irn-Bru and together toasted, The Porridge. Then the competition began in earnest.

Porridge Parade by Lisa            Porridge Parade, 12th October 2019.Courtesy of Lisa Williams

The Hall was decked in Tartan and the flags of the participating countries. It was packed to the gunnels and the organisers had provided a spill-over marquee outside, where visitors could watch proceedings via a video link. There was also a large screen in the Hall where the audience could see close ups of the cooking in progress.  Lisa was in the fourth heat, after lunch and started at a quarter passed one. This suited her as she prefers to start a little later, taking pleasure in watching the others. She had thirty minutes to complete this first task.  After each heat, anyone, audience, cooks or volunteers could taste the individual batches of porridge and they did after the Judges had completed their tasting. Lisa’s favourite this year was flavoured with seaweed and salmon.  She described the whole process as competitive but also cooperative, overlaid as it is with a strong village feel. Throughout these potentially tense times, Steve looked on in a silent, supportive role.

What is it that makes Lisa’s porridge so good? How does she make it? Lisa explained,      “I use pin head oatmeal, where the groats have only been chopped and Hamlyns regular oatmeal, where they are ground down, not steamed or flattened. I stock up on them when we go to Scotland because I can’t get them at home. When they are combined they give a lovely texture, creamy but nutty.  The consistency should be between runny and thick. Spoonable and similar to a Victoria Sandwich batter mix. This is my recipe for six people, although I had to cook for ten in the competition.

 1 cup of Hamlyn’s oatmeal

1 cup of Hamlyn’s pin head oatmeal

6 cups of water

Soak the ingredients overnight. In the morning, bring to the boil, constantly stirring. Turn down to simmer and after approximately 7 minutes add 1½ teaspoons of salt. (Approximately 7 grams) I use Maldon sea salt because the diamond shaped crystals are flaky and I think it breaks down quicker than other varieties. (I like the combination of Scottish Oats with English Salt.)  Serve.”

When the half hour’s cooking is over, the porridge is spooned into three bowls who’s only distinguishing feature is the Competitor’s number on the base to ensure anonymity. This year the recipe was tip-top and Lisa went through to the Final, where the action intensified.

Final porridge     The winning golden porridge. Note the wooden spurtle on the right hand side of the pan. Courtesy of Lisa Williams

The second stage required  all five contestants to produce another batch of porridge from the same recipe plus the additional challenge of producing a speciality dish.  For this, Lisa really pushed the boat out as she had opted to make a Porridge Afternoon Tea. The handwritten list below displays her baking running order:

0 2 Lisa’s list of things to make in thirty minutes for the Second Heat of the competition. Courtesy of Lisa Williams.

Again, there were just thirty minutes to pull everything together; the pace was punishing.  The components of the Speciality were: Savoury muffins with oats, Sweet Banoffee muffins with oats, Raspberry and Cream muffins with oats, Porridge Pate, Porridge flatbreads, Porridge Gin made in advance and Porridge cocktails. Oh, and sandwiches and the original Porridge recipe.

Porridge afternoon tea Afternoon Tea is Served. Courtesy of Lisa Williams

Scotch Bonnets off to Lisa for coping with the pressure so well. She had a hot and demanding half hour, cooking and baking whilst talking to the Judges about what was happening but,

…” I think something is sticking…”, one of the Judges remarked as they conversed about her menu….

and Lisa had to move quickly to avoid disaster. Ten dishes in thirty minutes seems insurmountable but the task was completed and Lisa retired to watch the Raffle and wait for the results.

By all accounts the Raffle is impressive with prizes to match the serious nature of the international competition. Whilst this took place, the Competitors reconvened to be given their Competitors Goodie Bag. After the Raffle, the Specialist Winner was announced. It was Nick Barnard of Rude Health with his Pecan and Maple Porridge. Then, as Lisa delved into her bag, the Winner of the Golden Spurtle was announced.

It was Lisa Williams from Trimley St. Martin in Suffolk, who was then sitting at the very back of the hall. She had hit a career highlight when her name was called out as the 2019 Winner. Despite her dazed and shocked condition, she made her way forward through the throng, reminding herself all the while to keep breathing, keep breathing, keep breathing. Finally, she was finally presented with The Golden Spurtle.

IMG_5765 2 The Golden Spurtle.

The Spurtle, whose value rests in its’ prestige rather than monetary worth, is Lisa’s for the year. The remainder of the prize included a glass decanter, a cash prize and naturally, Whisky. There then followed the all important photo opportunity of Lisa at the Pack Bridge holding The Golden Spurtle. This was just the start of a publicity whirlwind. By 9.00 o’clock on Monday 14th October, and after locating a hotel with Wi-Fi, Lisa had held three interviews. At 6.55 a.m. she was on BBC Scotland, at 8.20 a.m., she was on Radio Suffolk and at 8.40 a.m. her final appearance for the early morning was  BBC 4’s ‘Today’ programme. Swiftly joining into this national mix were interviews with newspapers.: The Scotsman, The Sun, The Evening Post, The Press and Journal, The I and The Times all ran articles about the Englishwoman who took home the Golden Spurtle to England.  (Lisa’s was pleased it stayed on the Island rather than going to America or another country.) On Tuesday 15th October, Lisa appeared on Felixstowe Radio.  Breathe Lisa, keep breathing.

IMG_4209 Lisa holding The Golden Spurtle. Courtesy of Lisa Williams.

IMG_5768 2 Some of Lisa’s Newspaper collection recording her achievement.

The publicity rolled on and when I met her this week she had three more appearances lined up with BBC Look East, ITV’s Anglian News and a second interview with Felixstowe Radio. Understandably, the Media can’t have enough of her at the moment and Lisa deserves every single second of enjoyment for her outstanding achievement and several rounds of hearty, congratulatory cheers. Trimley St. Martin has a World Champion in its’ midst.

It would be understandable at this point to quote Dr. Johnson’s famous definition of Oats but as I don’t wish to demean Carrbridge and the unique World Porridge Championships, a quote from Robert Burns seems more apposite:

Noo afore I end my hamely screed,
I canna weel forget

The gentle dames that guards the hoose
And keeps the folk in maet.
Lang may they bile the kail
And stir the porridge weel.
An may never need or want for nail
Tae keep the timmer hale

From: The Hairst o’Rettie  – Robert Burns

“Scotland Forever!”

(and Lisa Williams)

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If you have any comments or would like to be part of this Trimley St. Martin project, please contact me at:

trimleystmartinrecorder@gmail.com

LR  25/10/2019

[1] https://goldenspurtle.com  Contains the origins and history of this event. Please note, Carrbridge have teamed up with Mary’s Meals to feed hungry children across the World: https://www.marysmeals.org.uk

[2] Definition of Spurtle from Collins English Dictionary:

noun Northern England and Scottish

1.A wooden stick for stirring porridge or similar thick substances

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/spurtle

[3] https://visitcairngorms.com/carrbridge

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