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Alford, Scotland

Just outside of Aberdeen in the scenic Scottish countryside, John and Carol Medlock have been growing and milling golden, nutty and delicious oats for most of their lives.  

John is a second-generation farmer who grew up on the same land he now tends and not much has changed – he still only grows oats (with potatoes and grass on rotation to replenish the nutrients in the soil) and he grows them well. 

Little Freddie organic oats from Alford in Scotland Little Freddie organic oats from Alford in Scotland

The Medlock’s made the switch to organic farming back in the seventies – making them one of the first oat farms to make the change – and they’ve never looked back. And because they only grow and mill oats, there’s no risk of cross-contamination with wheat, making all their products gluten-free alongside an accreditation from the Coeliac Society.

“I think farming organically is pretty simple really,” John said. “We use the muck from our organic chickens to fertilise the field, and then you plant the oats and harvest them. We rely on Mother Nature for everything else.”

John said the secret to growing his oats – and the reason why Scotland was synonymous with this golden grain – was the amount of daylight the area received in summer, allowing oats to grow bigger, plumper and ultimately tastier.

John predominately grows spring oats which he plants in March/April and harvests come August/September time. After being combine harvested, the oats are taken to the Medlock’s mill where the real magic happens.

John and Carol bought the Montgarrie Mill back in 1995 and saved this slice of history from falling into disrepair. Founded in 1882, the mill still has all its original parts and is powered by an old water wheel from 1840, a sustainable and environmentally friendly energy source.

Despite its tired and worn appearance from the outside, the old mill is in perfect working order and gives a real insight into how things used to work before stainless steel and technology took over the food processing industry.

John said his mill was the oldest working mill with a kiln that he knew of and was the only one left of its kind still used commercially.

“We do it [dry and mill oats] the way they’ve done it for hundreds of years,” John said. “It’s the kiln that gives the oats this unique flavour.”

The kiln is a perforated floor used to slowly dry grains, beneath which is a coal furnace; in the Montgarrie Mill, the team burn Welsh Coal because it doesn’t affect the overall taste and it doesn’t need to travel too far.

After the oats are dried in the kiln for four hours (turned once), they rest and cool for a week before they are traditionally stone milled to achieve the right texture and size before getting sorted and bagged up.

Nothing goes to waste at the farm, with John reusing what he can where he can to make his farm more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

“We use some of the oat milling byproducts to bed the chickens; instead of buying wood shavings, we use oat husks,” he said. “A lot of the byproduct from the oats, we also make into a pellet that organic dairy farmers can buy. So, we keep the circle going around.”

While the Medlock’s oats may not taste like your average oat with their unique nutty and creamy flavour, they do hold all the usual health benefits that you find in organic oats, making them an ideal addition to any diet.

Oats have gained ‘superfood’ status in recent years because of their important vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidant content. They have also been linked to weight loss, helping to lower blood sugar levels and blood pressure, and many cardiovascular benefits.

Apart from kiln-drying and stone-milling oats, the Scottish also have a few other (and some may say, less sound) traditions when it comes to their morning bowl of porridge.

John said real porridge aficionados in Scotland would always cook their oats with water and salt for a savoury flavour, stir their boiling porridge with a special wooden rod and then eat their breakfast standing up. And although John and Carol are certainly dedicated to their oats and the traditional way of farming them, they said they always sat down to eat theirs in the morning and tended to add a drizzle of honey and portion of fruit.

Sounds like a perfect breakfast, however you prefer it.

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