North Staffordshire Oatcakes


North Staffordshire Oatcakes

Something of a culinary curiosity, North Staffordshire Oatcakes (as opposed to Scottish Oatcakes), are almost unknown of outside a triangle encompassing Shrewsbury, Tamworth & Buxton.

At the centre of this triangle is the heart of the Oatcake 'industry' (more of a trade), Stoke on Trent and it's environs, where a very high proportion of the locals consume thousands of the delicacy every week - mainly as an accompaniment to Sunday breakfast, and frequently on any day of the week.

To the uninitiated, they appear a most unappetising dish - a rubbery brown disc of a size similar to a pancake.

Once sampled and the taste acquired, however, they have been compared to a food fit for the gods, and visitors to the locality who have undergone the initiation frequently plead with friends from Staffordshire to bring a dozen or so with them if they are making an appropriate visit.

By default, they are a replacement for bread, and may be eaten hot, cold or fried, and may be filled (rolled) with savoury items such as bacon, cheese, sausages & eggs, or more uncommonly spread with butter & jam or syrup, much like the bread counterpart.

Common concensus claims that the oatcake originated as a result of some of the North Staffordshire Regiment soldiers stationed in India in the early 1900s acquiring a liking for chappatis.

Upon their return home, they imposed upon their mothers & wives the task of re-creating their favourite staple, and in the absence of chappati flour, the Oatcake emerged in various related recipes, bearing some resemblance to the chappati in appearance and method of preparation.

It soon became a local favourite, and thence an established product. From being made at home, it developed to a point where (as
I recall), oatcake 'bakeries' were to be found on every other street corner.

Our own grandmother - no doubt with the encouragement of grandfather (an ex-N.S. regiment soldier), produced oatcakes for local consumption, where they were delivered by our father to the neighbours.

As of early 2010, I must now acknowlege a correction - identified in a recent book - The STAFFORDSHIRE OATCAKE a history, recently published by Pam Sambook, and available through Amazon and elsewhere - that oatcakes per se have a much older & wider-ranging history than I had hereto imagined. Nevertheless, I am firmly of the opinion that the North Staffs Regiment's time in India at the turn of the 20th Century is greatly responsible for the consolidation and establishment of this local tradition. Without them, I fear that the oatcake in all its English forms would have been relegated to the past. Odd that the other variants haven't managed to maintain a commercial (or even a domestic) presence.

Currently, they are undergoing a local resurgence, and many oatcake bakeries have been established in and around the locality to supply - in addition to the regular provision of a 6 or 12 pack - the perfect take-away food, where many folk queue at lunch (and breakfast) times for what is a very economical alternative to the ubiquitous kebab or Big Mac.

It is so far generally unknown that most of the large supermarket chains now stock them throughout the UK - this supply being through NORTH STAFFS OATCAKE BAKERS LIMITED, of Chesterton, Newcastle.

Oatcakes are made from a simple batter of flour, oatmeal, yeast (or other common raising agents), sugar, salt & a milk/water mix, and are normally baked (cooked) on a baxton (literally a baking stone) - a plate of steel or iron heated from below by gas burners.

As with bread, the basic ingredients are much the same between individual bakers, but more tolerant to proportional variation in the ingredients. They would have originally been made with unrefined flour & oatmeal, but now a blend of white flour and wholemeal flour or 'Hovis' flour is utilised.

Although oatcakes freeze very well, they do not lend themselves to travel, and are best consumed within two or three days of baking lest they develop mould.

This has led to many pleas for "The Recipe" from North Staffordshire ex-patriates around the country and indeed from around the world.

An absolutely acceptable home version is incredibly easy to make, and a simple recipe & instructions are given below.

The oatcakes in the photograph above were made by me today to the recipe below, and prompted the writing of this article.

Follow this exactly, and you will have something that is undeniably a delicious product. Thereafter, you can modify the recipe to create your own personal version, secure in the knowledge that you have made and can recreate that first success!

Some people use flour to oatmeal  at a ratio of 2:1. This obviously gives a different texture - feel free to experiment.

Oatcake recipe

 225 gms  Oatmeal
 110 gms  Plain flour
 115 gms  Wholemeal flour
   30 gms  Milk Powder
   15 gms  Dried Yeast (don't use out-of-date yeast)
   10 gms  Sugar
     5 gms  Salt
1000 ml    Warm water

If oatmeal is not available, blitz same weight of rolled (porridge) oats for a few seconds
(There is no technical difference between oatmeal & rolled oats)
Rolled oats are half the price of oatmeal!
No need to be fussy about the flour ratios - use all plain if wholemeal not handy - you probably
won't notice any difference.
(Originally, they would have been made using unrefined flour, so any blend will be near enough,
but you do need the white flour for the gluten content)
If milk powder is not available, use water & milk at a ratio of about 60:40 in place of the 600ml of cold water
Mix all dry ingredients
Mix 600ml  cold water (or milk and cold water) with 400ml boiling
Add water to dry mix
Whisk until smooth
Cover and stand for about an hour in a warm place
Adjust consistency if necessary by gently mixing in a little more warm water
Ladle sufficient to cover a very hot 9" lightly oiled or non-stick frying pan
Cook for couple of minutes until 'dry' on top
Turn and cook for similar time
Turn out on to rack until warm
Turn again until cool
Stack and cover with clean teacloth or place in plastic bags when cold
Eat within two or three days, or freeze for later consumption

One final caveat. Cooking with gas gives a better and more controllable result, due to the ability to apply higher temperatures.
I have found that it is difficult to obtain a consistently adequate heat to the pan with an electric hob.
Ideally, of course, you should use an iron baxton on a gas flame.
Late news! - I've just 'discovered' the Tefal pancake 'hot-spot' pan - this does a creditable job even using the electric hob,
albeit giving a larger than average oatcake at 10" diameter.