Warm porridge mixed with yogurt in the morning, a staple in my breakfast routine, goes back more than 25 years. (Before that I used to start my days with toasted bread and cheese, as I never liked sweets for breakfast.) To flavor my porridge, I used a good pinch of Aleppo pepper flakes – a sweet-smoky, sun-dried and mildly hot Mediterranean pepper. I discovered this deeply-flavored condiment around the time I made the switch to oats, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
To make the porridge, I used rolled oats since it was the only kind available here. Tins of Quaker Oats became quite popular in Greece in the 1960s, and mothers all over the country prepared kouaker (pronounced koo-Ah-kehr), the word that came to mean ‘porridge’ in Greek. It was usually served sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar or drizzled with honey.
Later, imported cornflakes and other crunchy breakfast cereals cornered the market. I was quite happy with my tart and spicy yogurt-porridge, which I complemented with two pieces of seasonal fruit: orange and apple, pear and strawberries, loquats and cherries, nectarines and figs or plums. I never ate bananas; we didn't grow them in Greece. Now that I think of it, I never bought imported fruit at all. The local fruit from my weekly farmer’s market, at the foot of the Acropolis, was so fresh and irresistible that it made no sense to seek fruit grown outside the country.
It took me years to overcome the harrowing experience of my childhood breakfast: two slices of bread spread with a thick coat of margarine, washed down with a large cup of warm evaporated milk. The sweet-tasting margarine was by far the best part, but that doesn't say much; imported cow’s milk butter wasn’t yet widely available in Athens, and the musky, sheep’s milk butter on hand was too strong for me and my sister. Our parents, who survived the famine of the German Occupation during the Second World War and the civil war that followed, were obsessively feeding us; they were resolute that no matter what, we had to drink milk every morning. We lived on the outskirts of the city and fresh milk was not delivered to our neighborhood, so canned evaporated milk from Holland, of all places, was the only option. Drinking that horrible excuse for milk, diluted with hot water, was a real torture for me. I couldn’t bring myself to swallow it, and when my mother and father weren’t looking I smuggled my full cup to the drain and returned with an empty one. I probably have mild lactose intolerance and throughout my childhood I suffered badly from cramps and bloating all morning at school thanks to the condensed concoction.
My breakfast ignorance was bliss, but it ended during a trip to New York where I discovered steel-cut oats at a friend’s house. My rolled-oats appeared mushy and tasteless when I returned home, but neither steel-cut nor Scottish, stone-ground oats are available here in Greece. It took me a long time to secure a reliable source in the UK where I now order the organic oats I cook for my breakfast.
Most urban kids born around the 1950s had a breakfast similar to my old bread-and-margarine one, often with jam, honey, or plenty of sugar sprinkled on the margarine. Others just soaked stale bread or rusks in large bowls of milk or in watery, homemade yogurt. In contrast, in most remote poor villages people ate leftover food in the mornings. A friend who grew up in the mountains of the Peloponnese told me that her mother made a soup with onions, garlic and herbs for the whole family each morning. Kids consumed it just with bread, while men who worked in the fields added olives and wine, which gave them 'strength,' my friend said. In the fertile regions of central and northern Greece people ate cornmeal or barley porridge, or trahana --a thick, nourishing soup made with the homemade sour, fermented ‘pasta.’ In our home trahana was a cold night’s dinner that my mother served with olive-oil-fried croutons and crumbled feta cheese. Now I think of it, one of these days I should try the flavorful trahana spiked with Aleppo pepper and yogurt for breakfast...one day soon.
For the time being I am enjoying my latest, accidentally created version of the porridge I make with well-toasted steel-cut oats. Invention by necessity? Not quite, invention by negligence! One morning, hurrying to feed the dog and make coffee, I forgot to add water to the saucepan and before I knew it I smelled burning grains. But I didn't give up after the unorthodox start. The darker, nutty and smoky porridge was so much more delicious than the porridge I had been making. From that day on I have always toasted, in a dry pot, not just my breakfast oats but also the bulgur, millet or any other grains I cook for pilaf.
The yogurt I mix with my porridge is not ‘Greek.’ Few of the people I know eat the thick, strained yogurt now ubiquitous in Europe and the USA courtesy of Total's genius marketing, which is mostly used in salads and desserts here. I still eat old-fashioned, non-homogenized sheep’s milk yogurt; full-fat, of course. Its taste and fat content varies throughout the year, as it is directly related to the kind of greens the sheep are feeding on: in the winter and especially during early spring, when the fresh and fragrant greens fill the hills and plains, the yogurt is wonderfully creamy and delicious. In the summer, as the blazing sun parches the earth and the flocks eat mostly hay, the yogurt is tart and lighter. But in all its forms this real, unprocessed, and slightly cheesy yogurt complements perfectly my nutty porridge and the fresh seasonal fruit, on which I have found neither a way nor a reason to try to improve.
*Progevma (pronounced prO-gehv-mah) is the Greek word for ‘breakfast.’
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