“’Do not the people in the north of England, Scotland and Wales live even now upon oaten cakes?’
‘Yes, and from habit prefer them to bread made of wheat’”
Mangal’s Questions, 1850
Oatcakes are biscuits which are not difficult to make, and which taste miles better if they are not shop-bought, although the downside is that the homemade variety tend to be crumbly and disintegrate. Even Dorothy Hartley (Food in England 1954) opined the same – “a commercial imitation can be bought, but it has not the course-grained, brittle roughness of the genuine article, as commercially it is made thicker for packing purposes”.
The method for making them hasn’t changed much over the centuries.
Traditional, slightly updated recipe for making oatcakes:
- 250g/3 cups oatmeal (or 2½ cups oatmeal and ½ cup grape nuts)
- 1 tsp salt
- ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 2 tbsp/20g butter
- 120 ml/½ cup water (or milk)
- Preheat the oven to 180°C
- Mix all the dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl
- Rub in the butter, and then mix in the water (or milk). Do all this quickly as the dough will become impossibly sticky if over-handled
- Flatten the dough on a floured work surface (or you can use some additional oatmeal. Don’t use flour obviously if you are cooking for anyone with a wheat allergy). The dough should be about ¼”/½ cm thick
- Cut out the biscuits with a cutter (or a glass if you don’t have a cutter)
- Put on a flat metal tray lined with baking parchment or silicone paper) and bake for just over 15 minutes
History of oatcakes
Froissart writing in the 14th century describes how Scottish soldiers
“lay the plate [of metal] on the fire, and temper a little of the oatmeal, and when the plate is hot they cast the thin paste thereon and make a little cake in the manner of cracknel or biscuit…it is no marvel they make greater journeys than other people do”
Hartley comments that the soldiers probably used some greasy water from the army cauldrons as the oatcakes need a bit of fat in order to bind. Not only were they used to keep soldiers going, they also kept hard-working harvesters from slacking because the oats release their energy slowly. This isn’t just a ‘that was then’ sort of fact. Apparently there’s a new phenomenon in today’s stressed lifestyles which is dubbed being ‘hangry’ – if you happen to be angry AND hungry at the same time your judgement is very impaired and decision-making is worse than normal….so what people need to do is to eat food which will be digested slowly… for example oatcakes… although I am not convinced being only angry (but not hungry) would make that much difference to the decisions….
Updating the method of making oatcakes
Heston Blumethal substitutes a fifth of the oatmeal for grape-nuts which I think works well. Grape-nuts, for those who haven’t come across them before, are a patented breakfast cereal made mostly from wheat and barley (and not containing either grapes or nuts) so using them would not be suitable for anyone with a wheat allergy.
Of course there is always the easy option of buying oatcakes rather than making them, in which case I can tell you that the best oatcakes I have yet found come from the Ullapool bakery. They produce them plain, and also with various different tastes: black pepper, caraway, cheese and mustard, coriander and cumin, crumbly (made with 100% oatmeal), oatie (sweetened and covered in flakes of oat), garlic, stilton and walnut, honey and seed, and seaweed among others. Once you’ve mastered the plain type, you could experiment with these variations.
What oatcakes go with best
Oatcakes are especially good with cheese, the Welsh type of oatcake (which is more like a savoury pancake) going appropriately excellently with Hafod, whereas this plainer traditionally Scottish type (the oats grow better in the cold climate there than most other grains) goes well with almost all goats’ cheeses (try Riblaire).
Peak District oatcakes are something else entirely
The sort of oatcake you get in the Peak district is a completely different kettle of fish (or oats) – softer, doughier, thicker – more like a sort of cakey scone.