When our Llafur Ni (Our Grains) Network came together three years ago around a common goal to increase grain diversity in Wales, we quickly came to see oats as our low hanging fruit. Hearing anecdotes about the huge diversity of oats grown in Welsh fields of the past, we turned to IBERS research centre for advice. They confirmed that oats used to be grown in abundance across Wales due to their suitability to a wet climate. We talked to the older farmers and they told us of grey oats, black oats, short oats and tall oats.
We searched the gene banks and there they were, hundreds of regionally specific oat varieties, stashed away and waiting to be regrown. We wondered at the oats which might have never made it into the gene banks, lost forever. We marvelled at what had been stored and the possibility of bringing these oats back to our soils. But most of all, our imaginations were ignited by the idea of what these oats might taste like.
Would the Hen Gardie oat have a special flavor? Would the Radnorshire Sprig oat have a different texture? What would it be like to taste foods with such a powerful link to the Welsh communities who selected and maintained them?
It turns out that sowing these oats was only the first step in a very long journey. We germinated them, we measured them, we dreamed about them. We harvested them and then we redistributed the seeds out again to try to increase their quantities. But still we hadn’t tasted them.
The more we learnt about processing oats for human consumption, the more the questions and challenges facing us mounted. It turns out that eating oats is not a simple matter at all. It’s a mystery that shouldn’t exist.
We struck out on a quest to find out how to eat our oats. A quest we are still on.
Why can’t oats just be eaten off the sheaf? Most oat groats are encased in a hull. Separating the groat from the hull requires more than threshing. It requires the hull to be cracked enough to become detached, but gently enough to prevent grinding both the hull and groat into an oatmeal together. There needs to be a sideways motion to crack the hull and shake it’s tight grip on the groat. Once the hull and groat are separated, the enzymes in the groat react to the air and become rancid within a few weeks. Heat is usually the way to stabilise groats, allowing them to be stored for longer periods of time.
Where would a farmer in Wales get access to the kit to de-hull and stabilise their oats? There are no oat mills left in Wales. Farms such as Pwmhill on the Welsh border, renowned for their porridge oats and muesli, have their oats processed by a large commercial processing plant in England. Any farmer in Wales wanting to do the same would need to grow quantities high enough to warrant haulage into England and the costs associated with large scale processing.
But what about the small to medium scale farms? How would the patchwork fields of oats from the past have found their way into oatcakes, uwd (porridge) and sucan (sowans)? What shocked us was how hard it was to find the answer to this seemingly simple question. We talked to museums, to farming organisations and to the farmers themselves. While people could tell us about growing the oats, there seemed to be a collective blindspot around how these oats got from the sheaf to the plate.
Felin Ganol Watermill sits on the edge of Llanrhystud Village in Ceredigion. Lovingly restored by Anne and Andrew Parry, the mill has been working since the 1680’s and, due to the millers’ commitment to the local grain economy, mills wheat from around the locality.
Anne explains that just as grain diversity was lost in the fields, the diversity of mills within Wales has also been lost. Ceredigion county alone had a whooping 400 small mills only 150 years ago, now only Felin Ganol remains. Anne is confident that these mills would have processed oats, for consumption by both horses and humans. In fact, Felin Ganol has mill records stretching back 200 years which show both oats and barley being milled there in the past.
Anne describes the old process of milling oats, in which oats would have been kiln dried (resulting in stabilisation) and then milled with a ‘fixed rind’ stone that cannot wobble (and therefore knocks the hull off rather than grinding it finely). The hulls would then have been separated from the oatmeal by winnowing machine. Thanks to the kilning, this process would have produced a unique taste. Older locals can still recall the smell of slowly roasting oats floating across Llanrhystud.
The Felin Ganol kiln still needs restoration, and the mill no longer mills oats. This is partly down to the oat catch 22; without oats to mill, the mill has not been able to focus its energy on restoring the equipment needed to mill oats. Anne and Andrew have aspirations to restore their old kiln and would love to process oats in the future. But for now, our oats cannot pass through their stones. Nor can they pass through the stones of the hundreds of small mills that would have milled oats in Wales, because they no longer exist.
Holly Tiffin and the Grown in Totnes crew are widely understood to be the modern masters of oat processing. Born out of the Transition Town movement, in 2013 Holly and a group of grain hungry people started mapping their local food economy and identifying crop gaps. Unable to source local grains, they started working with local farmers to commission crops for local consumption, including a black oat.
“All that was left was to rustle up some processing equipment” says Holly, “surely that was the easy part”. Grown in Totnes celebrate their mistakes as much as their failures, recognising the need to experiment and take risks. Holly reflects, “As every entrepreneur I have ever spoken to says, ‘If I knew then, what I know now, I would never have started’, however with the benefit of hindsight I feel that a level of ignorance is a vital ingredient to creating change”.
Raising funds and embarking on their own epic oat processing quest, Holly and her team took on premises on a Totnes industrial estate to set up their grain processing plant. They bought a second hand Heger dehuller from Doves Farm and imported a separator and cyclone from Horn in Germany. Despite having the kit, they struggled to dehull a sufficient percentage of the grain and then separate the dehulled from the hulled grains. Needing a winnower and a place to carry out this dirty process, they moved to growing naked oats (without a husk).
With naked oats, the biggest hurdle was still to come. Finding that once flaked or milled the oats went rancid very quickly; they had to recall all of their oats from the shop shelves. Having discovered that freezing oats considerably slowsthe rate of rancidity down, they moved to selling frozen oats. With a dedicated community of local food supporters, they were able to sell some oats directly to their customers and others to bakers who had facilities to store the oats in a freezer.
Having now produced an invaluable online toolkit so that others can build on their discoveries, Grown in Totnes have made small scale grain and pulse processing plants using modern machines a reality. Aspiring oat processors can follow their checklists to find the machinery they need. For farmers in Wales, this provides a roadmap for collectively owned oat processing plants, something the farmers in our networks desperately want. All that stands in their way is thousands of pounds, over 5 different electric machines, premises to house them and transport for the oats to reach these processing plants.
Another person who has cracked the oat processing puzzle is Irish farmer and miller Kevin Scully of the Merry Mill. Kevin spent over 7 years researching, travelling Europe and experimenting with oat de-hulling processes. He has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on equipment, and cautioned us “this is not for the faint hearted, you have to be aware of the investment needed in oat processing”.
Kevin has found the pot of gold at the end of his oat rainbow, and is now proudly growing and processing his oats on-farm in County Laos, Ireland, with his wife and daughters. He has designed a unique stabilisation technique which leaves the oats uncooked and raw. Understandably, Kevin does not want to share this hard won discovery, as the live nature of his oats is his unique selling point. The Merry Mill provides us with an example of how dedication to oat processing can lead to results, but not without investment and significant risk.
Back to our rare Welsh oats, and growing quantities currently so small we can only sow them by hand. We are still left with the feeling that there must be a simple solution to eating this food which has been eaten without the need for modern technology for hundreds of years.
Colin Gordon is a Scottish Farmer and advisor to the Seed Sovereignty Programme. On a trip across the Irish countryside he was told stories about oats being burned on the sheaf. Intrigued, Colin followed the trail, pointing to old laws that prohibited the burning of corn in the fields as another clue to this practice. “Anyway, looking through the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of old Gaelic hymns and incantations, I found a description of ‘the ancient custom of the Gael’ to prepare Gradan (parched/ burnt grain) for the quern (a small, hand-turned stone mill) called gradanadh” says Colin.
Dwelly’s Gaelic dictionary describes this oat burning process as follows:
“A woman sitting down, took a handful of corn & holding it in her left hand by the stalks, she set fire to the ears, which were at once in a flame. In her right hand she held the stick, with which she dexterously beat the grain out the very instant the husks were quite burnt. By this simple process, corn may be cut down, winnowed, ground, dried and baked within half an hour. In separating the meal from the husks, instead of sieves, they made use of a sheepskin stretched on a hoop, minutely perforated by a small hot iron. The bread which is thus made is considered very salubrious & is extremely pleasant to the palate of the Gael.”
Could it be that to taste our oats, we will have to burn them first?
Throughout our oat quest, naked oats have been suggested as a possible solution to processing challenges. The naked oat grows a groat with no hull, eliminating the need for de-hulling equipment of any kind.
There are downsides. The high fat content of the naked oat causes processing issues, making them sticky to mill. The fine hairs that grow on the groat can cause severe itching for the farmers cutting them. But without other more obvious solutions, the naked oat has remained a tantalising option.
We had understood naked oats to exist only as modern breeds, raising questions around if we wanted to cultivate something bred to be more genetically narrow and often suited to more industrialised farming practices. It turns out that the naked oat might have roots deeper than we first thought.
Josiah Meldrum, co-founder of Hodmedods, the inspirational UK pulse and grain farming business, has done his oat research. Finding mention of naked oats in old farming records, he connected with researcher Harriet Gendall. While following the story of older Cornish oats, Harriet found a woodcut of a naked oat in Gerard’s Herbal, published in 1597. It could it be that these older naked oat varieties, now lost to us, were among the countless other oats that never made it into seed stores, or which fell between farmers hands as seeds were passed along.
Whatever the truth of the naked oats’ origins, and though they may solve some of our processing problems, they are not our silver bullet. We have in our hands rare Welsh oats with hulls. And we know they were once processes and eaten on a large scale without modern technology.
We have yet to crack this challenge. Our oat processing quest has not yet reached its end. But we can feel ourselves inching ever closer to tasting our Welsh heritage. We can smell the kilns of the past and imagine the machines of the future which might help us to complete our oat cycle.
Having uncovered a mountain of questions we are steadfastly climbing it. There is nothing more enticing than a mystery, especially when the answer is just out of reach. We feel confident that if we can find a way to process and eat our oats, there will be no stopping their germination across our landscape and their resurgence in our lives. The quest continues.
Join the Llafur Ni network by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
 Oat Groats are the part of oats that human’s can consume.