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Porridge has had something of a renaissance in recent times. I’d love to say you heard it here first, but you’ve probably noticed that grains in all their goodness have hit the food scene with a vengeance over the last year or two. It seems you can’t peruse a single brunch menu without coming across at least one porridge option. It is the staple dish of the country’s most beloved chefs (Nigel Slater loves a good rolled oat), and is served up by a host of cafes across London each and every morning. It doesn’t feel like a fad, either; there is something timeless about a steaming bowl of milky porridge, and it just cries out to be piled with toppings.
What perfect timing, then, for Alex Hely-Hutchinson to arrive on the scene brimming with ideas to turn breakfast into your favourite meal of the day. At the tender age of 24 Alex founded 26 Grains, a company serving dishes of glorious grains in various forms. A fixture of the London pop-up scene (yes that’s possible), 26 Grains was homed in East London’s Hatch Homerton, but since has voyaged around the capital from Deliciously Ella Yoga Breakfasts to a spot in Old Street tube station.
“Nothing I do is that complicated” Alex says, “I try and keep things simple but interesting. New flavour combinations are key, and I use spices to add taste rather than sugar and salt.”
After a spell living in Copenhagen, Alex was inspired by the quality of eating that permeates the city. She fell in love with Groed, the place where Denmark’s most stylish go to tend their porridge appetites. Inspired by Lasse Anderson’s porridge wizardry, Alex returned to London ready to show the city just what everyone was missing. It seems Groed and its hometown played a big part in the birth of 26 Grains.
“I love the Danes,’ Alex tells us. “The quality of life is just incredibly high. The clothes are well made, the food is well made, and your bike is your Oyster Card. It’s a clean lifestyle that I hope to return to.”
There’s no sign of 26 Grains slowing down any time soon, as Alex makes her way into a host of events in and around London, including supper clubs and pop-ups with the likes of Vogue and Glamour. It seems everyone is falling for her delectable combinations. They include a pear, cardamom and hazelnut porridge, a cacao, almond milk and chia bircher, and a savoury kale, apple and walnut bowl. And what of the name?
“26 is just a number that I like,” Alex tells us. “It’s one of those numbers that seems to come around a lot; there are 26 letters in the alphabet, 26 miles in a marathon, 260 weekdays in a year, it just fits.”
We settled ourselves into Alex’s Chelsea home kitchen, where the smell of bubbling berry compote and toasted rye granola piped through the air. She showed us how she hand-rolls all of her grains.
“I’m trying to find someone with a mill to do this for me right now!” she tells us, turning the wheel of a shiny little device anchored to her counter with practiced efficiency. And she doesn’t stop there; Alex then soaks the oats overnight to break down their phytic acid so that the body can absorb them more easily. Glad to know someone has the patience to be doing this, all in the name of our good health…
By the end of our breakfast date, it was clearer than coconut water that Alex really knows her oats. With 26 Grains, she has revamped a dullard of the food scene and made it exciting again. A seasonally changing menu and an owner with a genuine passion for what she does, this is a name you’re bound to see cropping up this year. Who knew the humble oat could cause such a stir? Here, Alex fills us in on her grainy wisdom.
So, where did the porridge obsession begin? So many things led to porridge. At university it was the most economically efficient way of eating and would fill me up for ages. After that my sister and I really got into healthy eating and started to think about food more, how the stuff we put into our body can not only be the simplest things, but the best. It’s a wonderful concept to experiment with. People are often intimidated by the term ‘health food’, but it can sometimes just be a case of playing with new ingredients and finding new ways to cook and eat.
What is your favourite grain? VERY difficult. They’re all so different…it’s got to be the oat. It’s slightly sweet, creamy and you can just do so much with it. Yep, the simple oat.
Any tips to spice up normal cupboard oats? Oh yeah! One of my favourite porridge recipes is just a good amount of salt, milk (I like almond but you can use any), organic butter and a little coconut palm sugar. It just can’t get any better. When I’m working at home I just make it and know it’s going to be so delicious, warming and comforting. Also one of my favourite things is vanilla salt, which is a great way to get real vanilla bean and that classic salty flavour into porridge.
Favourite brunch spot in London? Chatsworth Road is an incredible street for eating. My favourite brunch place is the Swedish café Cooper & Wolf, they do Swedish cinnamony bakes and gravlax. It’s a simple family spot on a corner overlooking a green; it’s just everything I love in a café. I can sit in there for hours. Plus the market is right on the doorstep.
Best city in the world for eating? Copenhagen. After living there for a year I really came to appreciate their standard of eating. I remember the first time I ordered a sandwich at a pretty standard café right next to my flat. This beautiful, incredibly dark rye roll arrived, bursting with avocado, horseradish and beetroot. It was incredible. There is just an extremely high standard there. What is normal there would be memorable here. They make dishes interesting by embracing lots of different grains, too, which really propelled my interest in porridge.
26 Grains Pits and Peaks of 2014? My peak would be my first returning costumer. They’d gone away to eat the porridge and decided to come back for more. That was just amazing! One of my pits would be my hob breaking at a Deliciously Ella yoga brunch, so I was left stirring a bowl of cold oats and actually began serving up just the toppings for people to eat. I love talking to people, so it’s a peak each time someone comes to the stall and there’s that two minute wait while the porridge cooks. I get to hear about people’s weeks and catch up with regulars. It’s like a mini therapy session.
Alex Hely-Hutchinson’s Top 5 Copenhagen Eating Stops
Pate Pate – Slagterboderne 1, 1716, Copenhagen, +39 69 55 57
Fiske Bar – Flæsketorvet 100, 1711, Copenhagen, +45 32 15 56 56
Café N – Blågårdsgade 17, 2200, Copenhagen, +45 32 15 68 52
Paludan – Fiolstræde 10, 1171, Copenhagen, +45 33 15 06 75
Morgenstedet – Pusher Street, 1440, Copenhagen
Photos by Issy Croker, Words by Meg Abbott, follow them both on @thecuriouspear Read about the Curious Pear eating their way through their first week in New York.
More at thecuriouspear.com
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