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Scottish pride restored by world porridge champion

By Neil Curry, CNN
updated 5:06 AM EST, Tue November 19, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Scottish village of Carrbridge is host to the World Porridge Championship
  • Competition to create the best oatmeal gloop is fierce, and national pride is on the line
  • Porridge is big business, and making the perfect bowl is not always easy
  • CNN attends the competition and is there when the winner collects the "Golden Spurtle"

(CNN) -- There once was a time, many years ago, when the sounds of bagpipes struck fear into the stomachs of Englishmen.

But today mine was responding differently. Because, come sunset, I will have tasted the world's best bowl of porridge.

The Scottish village of Carrbridge is known as the gateway to the Cairngorm mountains -- and for one weekend last month it was also the epicentre of the porridge world. Challengers from around the globe traveled here to win the Golden Spurtle, the prize coveted by every competitor in the World Porridge Championship.

To start the ceremonies, kilted pipers led the cooks from the bridge along the main street, and to the village hall. At the head of the parade were the judges, holding aloft the prize, glittering in the morning sunshine.

Master of ceremonies Martyn O'Reilly raised a glass of whiskey in solemn tribute to the mighty meal: "Ladies and gentlemen we drink a toast to the porridge," he said. "To the porridge!" the cooks roared in reply, downing their tots in one.

Their enthusiasm is being echoed in diners across Britain. Porridge is becoming big business, worth $400 million in the UK alone. Fast food stores in London such as McDonald's, Starbucks and Pret a Manger sell thousands of instant porridge pots every week.

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In Carrbridge, the village hall was decorated with the flags of many nations, from the U.S. to Scandinavia -- and even from across the border in England.

The Golden Spurtle rewards the maker of the best traditional porridge -- a seemingly simple blend of three ingredients: oatmeal, water and salt. However I was assured even the most experienced chefs find it almost impossible to produce the same porridge twice in a row.

Neal Robertson was World Porridge Champion in 2010. I know this because he bears a tattoo on his right arm declaring the fact. He has studied spurtle technique closely and invented a double-backed spoon which he calls a "Spon," which he believes gives him an advantage over those to whom he hasn't managed to sell one.

"You should always stir with your right hand, always stir while standing up and you should always stir clockwise because it keeps the devil at bay," he told me.

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With a thirty-minute time limit per heat, tension mounted as the clock ticked down. Each competitor poured out the required three bowls of their best brew. The steaming porridge was then collected on trays and carried through to the judges' room.

The table strained under the weight of the bowls. Each was secretly numbered to protect the anonymity of the competitors. The terminology used was clearly technical to my untrained ears.

"That's foisty"..."claggy"..."snottery"...that's a curling puck," one said.

"I like that, it's quite nutty..."

"That one's too thick...it's bland...it's gloopy."

More and more bowls arrived. One trio turned up with firework sparklers showering the table. Another declared itself as "Podgeree" a mix of porridge and kedgeree - the curry-flavoured smoked fish, egg and rice dish beloved by officers of the British Raj.

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"Och it's too hot!" exclaimed one judge.

"It's an abomination, it's disgusting."

You could hear a spurtle drop as the judge prepared to reveal the identity of this year's champion. It was Gaelic singer John Boa, the gentle giant who won in 2011 but lost the Spurtle to an Englishman last year. There were tears in his eyes as he accepted the award to cheers and applause echoing around the rafters of the village hall.

"It's a fun event and we shouldn't get too emotional but it's got a pull this thing and my only regret is that last year's champion wasn't here to be put in his place but there it is," he said.

"We don't mind people coming here to win the spurtle but they should bow to the master when he's been anointed."

Next year the competition will take place within two weeks of Scotland's referendum on whether to become independent of the U.K. If John Boa were to repeat his success in the Golden Spurtle, he could become the first world champion of an independent Scotland.

Now there's a stirring thought.

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