Monday, 2 March 2015

OATS about YOU?

Being aware of the compelling health benefits of oats and being an avid fan of porridge (oatmeal) as a breakfast staple, I was only delighted to accept a recent invitation to visit Flahavan's family mill in Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford.

Oats were one of the first cereals cultivated by man. They were to be found growing in ancient China as long ago as 7000 BC while the Greeks are believed to be the first to make porridge (oatmeal) from oats. However, it was the Romans who not only introduced oats to other countries in Western Europe. The best quality oats grow where there is light fertile soil, where the climate is temperate and there is a rainfall of over 60cm (24") a year.

Oat grains are sown in the winter and ripened in the fields by the summer sun. The oats are then harvested when fully ripe in the autumn. One can easily recognize oats from other grain crops such as wheat and barley, by the way the grains appear in clusters called "panicles" on tall graceful stems. A typical oat plant grows to around 90cm (3ft) high and each stem generally carries about twenty to twenty-five grains. Each panicle carries two or three grains and each grain is covered by a outer husk that helps protect it all the way to the mill.

The cultivation of oats is particularly suited to Ireland's climatic conditions and therefore porridge (oatmeal) became a staple food of the Irish from prehistoric times until the seventeenth century. With the introduction of the potato in the late sixteenth century, the prevalence of porridge (oatmeal) declined as potatoes superseded oats as the staple diet and only in times of poor potato harvest did it temporarily regain its pre-potato status. However, despite the prevalence of the potato, oats maintained a strong foothold in the national diet until well into the late nineteenth century. Most households also held stores of oatmeal for the production of porridge (oatmeal), bread - and importantly - as an ingredient for the manufacture of black puddings.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries oatmeal became increasingly popular when it was mixed with whiskey as a cure for the common cold. In this period porridge (oatmeal) increasingly became a breakfast dish and this was promoted by the establishment of the commercial oatmeal producers, Flahavan's, in the eighteenth century.

Flahavan’s has been milling oats at the family mill in Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford for over 200 years. There has been an oats mill at Kilmacthomas since the late 1700's. The power for the mill came from the nearby River Mahon which at one time also powered four other mills. In those days, the mill was used for the contract milling of oats for local farm growers and oat growers. This is where the farmer’s oats were then milled and the milled oatmeal was returned to him. He was charged for this service. At this time, the oatmeal was a heavier type than the Flahavan's "flaked" oatmeal we know today.

In 1935 it was decided to expand the mill and to put in an oatflaking facility. Oatflaking produced a finer flake, which is faster to cook. By 1959, Flahavan’s completed the construction of its current mill building. Nowadays, the Flahavan's factory produces oats-based breakfast cereals, rolled oats, cereals, muesli, flour, snack products, and baked oat products.

Flahavan’s are committed to sustainable production that protects the environment and the community. They burn the outer shell of the oat to fuel the boiler which generates steam used in the cooking process of the oats. A 60ft wind turbine is also being built on the four acres of land to power 50 kilowatts and even the the original millstream at the River Mahon is used to generate electricity to help power the mill.

As a Waterford company, Flahavan's take pride in sourcing oats from local growers. At harvest time, they carefully select only the finest quality wholegrain oats, drying and storing them safely for the year ahead until needed. When the oats enter the Milling process, there are five distinct stages to this process:
  • Cleaning, drying and grading
  • Dehulling and cleaning
  • Groats to pinhead
  • Pinhead to oatlets
  • Packaging and distribution
The oats are brought at harvest into the mill by the growers. They are then cleaned and dried so that they may be safely stored until they are needed. When the oats enter the milling process, they are gravity fed from the top of the six-storey building travelling down each floor for processing, firstly they are cleaned, taking off straws, stones and weed seeds and are then sent through a stream of air to remove any dust or light grains that would be unsuitable for milling.

The grain is then sorted by size into small grains, medium sized and large size grains. The Oats are then fed into the oat sheller, which cracks the husk off the grain without damaging the kernel. The mixture of kernel and hull is fed into a stream of air which blows off dust and hull. It is then subject to a polishing which removes the dust and hull which has not been properly dislodged.

The groats are then cut by feeding them into a cylinder with a large number of holes, the kernel fall through these holes and are cut to produce what is called Pinhead oatmeal. This is the oatmeal which can be used to make traditional porridge (oatmeal).

The pinheads are steam cooked at over 100 degrees celsius, filling the plant with a warm comforting wholesome smell, before being rolled into oatflakes. The flakes are then dried, cooled and stored in containers for packaging.

The product is then automatically weighed, dropped in its packet, the packet is then pressed down, folded and sealed. The packets are then packed into cartons ready for distribution to your local store.

Oats are high in soluble fibre. Beta-Glucan, the water-soluble fibre prevalent in oats has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol. Oats contain slow-digesting carbohydrates which keep you fuller for longer. Soluble fibre also slows the absorption of glucose into the body, which means you are going to reduce the effects of high and low sugar peaks. Just one cup of porridge (oatmeal) supplies more than 1,450 units of vitamin A – vital for muscle and tissue growth. A cup of oats also contains 187mg of calcium, helping to strengthen teeth and bones. Porridge (oatmeal) also has a generous amount of iron - a vital mineral which joins forces with red blood cells to carry oxygen to the muscles and all other areas of the body. So what is there not to love about porridge (oatmeal)!

Suzanne Donoghue, you can follow on Twitter @SuzanneDonohoe, a mindfulness coach, has teamed up with Flahavan's to promote a healthy mind to go with your healthy body. After the tour of the mill there was a very interesting and thought provoking introduction to mindfulness with Suzanne in the Flahavan's family home. Mindfulness through meditation is to encourage people to reduce everyday stresses by taking time out to Mind Yourself. Suzanne showed us how we can easily incorporate the techniques of mindful living into our busy lives.

To learn more about Flahavan's and their product range see, you can follow on Twitter @FlahavansIRL

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