The Staffordshire Oatcake: a regional delicacy

Englepip, licensed under CC BY 2.0

When someone mentions the word ‘oatcake’, what is it that you first think of?

I’d be rather surprised if many of you will not, like I used to do, immediately think of the commercially produced packaged ones, often sold in pretty boxes at the supermarket like those shown below.

Figure 1: Nairn’s Oatcakes
Gareth E. Kegg, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Nairn’s do seem to have cornered the market and appear near ubiquitous, but there are other oatcake manufacturers. More than one sells wedge-shaped ‘farl’ oatcakes, a quarter of a larger cake, rather than the Digestive-sized roundels we know best.

But this type of oatcake is the Scottish oatcakes, a crisp, dry, unleavened biscuity flat cake which was once such a staple that they could almost be thought of as the daily bread of bonnie Scotland. Not what I’m planning to extol, but still damn fine things to eat.

Scottish oatcakes pretty much comprise oatmeal, water, a fat of some sort (by tradition dripping, lard or butter) and a little salt. The ingredients, mixed to form a stiff dough, are rolled into a thinnish flat cake which is cooked until crisp on a hot stone or griddle. They are closely related to the scone-like ‘bannock’ (traditionally eaten on the morning of Beltane, to safeguard the health of crops and livestock in the coming season).

There are documented records of such griddled cakes being prepared way back to c.43 AD, and the invasion of emperor Claudius’ Roman troops. Oats, or to give them their proper name, Avena sativa, are now synonymous with Scotland, yet they’ve long been a somewhat distained grain. In truth, they were imported as a crop by the Romans as horse feed! However, unlike many other cereal crops, the cool, wet conditions for growing oats is more than adequate in Scotland, even in the most northerly parts of this proud land.

Figure 2: Oats (Avena sativa)
Matt Lavin, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Although traditionally often prepared freshly from the basic ingredients listed above, Scottish oatcakes can also be cooked in advance. As they are quite dry once cooked, they keep really well. In fact, they lend themselves to such a long shelf-life that they’ve been used as a variety of ‘Hard Tack’ (a.k.a. Ship’s Biscuits), a ‘survival food’ of sorts in their day.

Now found in lunchboxes across the UK, they’ve come a long way from their simple peasant origins. These days you’ll find all kinds of new-fangled additions to the recipe, such as cheese, seeds, and fruit. Even Marmite, and chocolate chips, I believe. All to suit modern fashions and tastes for ‘healthy’ snacks.

But let me get this straight. The Scottish variety are indeed oatcakes and are quite probably the original oatcakes found within the UK. Very tasty and versatile they are too, but they are not the local delicacy I want to talk about today.

If you haven’t already made their acquaintance, I’d like to introduce you to their softy southern cousins, the Staffordshire Oatcakes, a lesser-known treat from my recently adopted county.

Our oatcakes have long been acclaimed around the six towns that make up the city of Stoke-on-Trent (Burslem, Fenton, Hanley, Longton, Stoke, and Tunstall) and the Staffordshire Potteries. There are certainly records for hot oatcakes served straight from the griddle dating back to the 17th century.

Some have suggested that the origins of this softer oatcake could come from the British Raj and the Mughal Empire. The story goes that soldiers from the North Staffordshire Regiment developed a taste for chapatis whilst serving in India. The soldiers, or perhaps their wives, tried to recreate them once the men returned home, coming up with a sort of DIY ‘Potteries Poppadom’. But this is most likely merely a military man’s myth.

Older records have been noted for oatcakes with fairly similar recipes dating to the 15th century in neighbouring Derbyshire, as well as in Lancashire and Yorkshire, so it’s somewhat more likely that oatcakes were staples in Staffs well before the days of the Raj. However, and whenever they came to be, they are loved in the Potteries to this day.

Unlike their better-known Scottish relatives, Staffordshire oatcakes are savoury pancakes, soft, and supple, more crêpe-like in appearance than those biscuit types we’ve been considering. Staffordshire oatcakes are, once again, made from oatmeal, and water, but this time the mixture has no fat, but flour added. Furthermore, they are leavened with yeast.

Once cooked, the Staffordshire oatcake remains slightly moist rather than being dry and biscuit-like. This glorious gentle moist softness makes them flexible, so they can be folded or rolled, and it is this that gives them their great versatility as they can be filled with all manner of delicious delights.

Often eaten as a tasty breakfast-on-the-go (it’s Fast-Food Jim, but not as we know it!), to me they taste amazing filled with melted cheese and mushrooms, though I have noticed that bacon seems a tad more popular. A common filling is cheese, tomatoes, and bacon, as seen below served with a sausage and fried egg.

Figure 3: Staffordshire Oatcakes breakfast
Keilana, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Staffordshire variety of the oatcake is actually very versatile and can be enjoyed as a sustaining snack at any time of day. As well as being healthy, nutritious, and cheap, they are also easy (I shan’t say foolproof, mind you) to make.

Staffordshire oatcakes have been described by some afficionados as ‘magical circles of deliciousness’. Once made, you can dress them up, or keep things really simple by warming them through to serve with just a knob of good butter… You can even serve them as a dessert, filled with stewed fruit and yoghurt or crème fraiche, maybe drizzled with maple syrup and chopped nuts. The sky is the limit and, though it’s probably heresy to even suggest it in these parts, I have heard that some people like them spread with Nutella! Personally, I feel that’s pushing it.

Originally, the oatcakes would have been made in individual dwellings, typically by the lady of the house to supplement whatever earnings came into the household. They’d be cooked freshly to be sold through the window to passing customers. But gradually, small commercial premises evolved to sell oatcakes, mass production to a lesser degree.

You can still find little oatcake shops in many towns across Staffordshire, though sadly far fewer than were once seen. Each will give their own subtle variation to the recipe, and Potteries passions can run hot with whose oatcake is superior.

Figure 4: A few oatcake shops
Top row Basher Eyre and Jonathan Kington licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Bottom row rickmassey1 and John Lord, licensed under CC BY 2.0

But though they are a little less common than they once were, even today you can find shops across the north of the county, from just over the border in Congleton down to Blythe Bridge, from Alsager across to Cheadle. We have even seen mobile oatcake stalls, and there’s a Staffordshire Oatcake Day to celebrate them! (it’s held on the 8th of August).

Although living in Stone we are, technically, somewhat south of traditional oatcake territory (they are more of a North Staffordshire delicacy so it’s the area to the north of us which is really famed for these delicious treats), we don’t miss out.

We have ‘The Oatcake Boat’, a canal barge dedicated to cooking fresh oatcakes which moors at the floating market in Stone each summer to flog us fabulous feasts, freshly cooked by a cheery chappie called Toby.

I shall now commit a Going Postal sin, in the eyes of some, and provide you with a recipe to make them at home. To make about ten Staffordshire Oatcakes you will need:

  • 900ml water (warmed, though you can if you prefer mix 450ml milk/450ml water)
  • 250g finely ground oats (or grind ordinary porridge oats in a food processor)
  • 100g strong wholemeal flour (the high-gluten bread variety)
  • 100g strong white flour
  • 1tsp finely ground salt (please use something decent, not Saxa!)
  • 4g dried yeast (or 10g fresh yeast)
  • A little oil or fat of your choosing to cook (lard, bacon drippings, or clarified butter is best, but you can use vegetable oil)

OK, so that’s the what, here’s the how:

  • Mix the dry ingredients, the oats, the two flours, and the salt in a large bowl
  • Heat the liquid in a pan until it is approximately blood temperature (fingertip test will do, no need for a thermometer)
  • Mix the yeast with a small amount of the warmed liquid in a separate bowl, cover and leave it to sit for a little while until it froths
  • Stir the frothy yeast into the dry ingredients. Then whisk in the remaining warm liquid to form a smooth batter. Cover the bowl and leave it somewhere warm to prove for about an hour, until the batter is bubbly (alternatively, I am told that you can leave it overnight in the fridge)
  • Use that oil or fat to lightly grease a bakestone, or griddle (or large frying pan) and put it to heat over a medium-high ring. You’ll need it to get it just hot enough for the batter to sizzle slightly as it hits the hot surface
  • When the griddle is ready, give the batter one last quick whisk, then add a ladleful to the griddle plate (or pan). You may need to tilt the pan or use the ladle to persuade it to spread out into a nice, neat circle
  • Cook the batter until the mixture looks dry on top, then loosen the edges, and carefully turn your oatcake over. The braver souls amongst you might like to try flipping it, but any kitchen cleaning or redecoration is down to you!
  • At this point, add any toppings you would like to melt or warm through (e.g. that lovely sharp Cheddar cheese) and continue to cook until your oatcake is a beautiful golden brown on the bottom

Now you can roll or fold them over and eat your gorgeous oatcakes fresh from the pan (my preference). However, if you want to prep a batch ahead of time, leave out the fillings, and allow the cooked oatcakes to cool on a rack. Covered, they will keep in the fridge for a few days… assuming you can resist that long. They also freeze well. To use them, simply reheat in a dry pan, and add your fillings as you wish.

Being the season of goodwill to all Puffins, I can’t help but share my non-traditional way to enjoy Staffordshire oatcakes at Christmastime. When flipped over to cook or warm the second side, add a hefty tablespoonful of a good (preferably homemade) mincemeat to your oatcake, and let this warm through, releasing that wonderful sweet, spicy aroma. Roll or fold and ladle on a goodly dollop of brandy cream. Sit back and enjoy the fantastic flavour of festive oatcakes whilst you watch this fascinating video, a paean to the Potteries.


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