Place of origin
|Oats, salt, water (Scottish variety) |
An oatcake is a type of flatbread, similar to a cracker or biscuit, or in some versions takes the form of a pancake. They are prepared with oatmeal as a primary ingredient, and sometimes include the addition of plain or wholemeal flour as well. Oatcakes are cooked on a griddle (or girdle, in Scots) or baked in an oven.
Oatcakes have been documented as existing in Scotland since at least the time of the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43, and likely before then. Oatcakes have also been described as being the "mainstay of Scottish breads for centuries". Jean Le Bel, around 1357-60 describes the Beguine nuns making "little pancakes rather like communion wafers". This is thought to be an early description of a Scottish oatcake.
Oatcake variations exist based upon different preparations in various countries and regions.
Queen Elizabeth II typically has Scottish oatcakes for breakfast and Walkers Oatcakes carry a Royal Warrant. British Prime Minister David Cameron named Scottish oatcakes as his favourite cake.
The Universal British Directory of Trade, Commerce and Manufacture of the 1790s notes the bread of High Furness being thin oatcakes, whilst in Lancashire a leavened oatcake known as riddle bread was made. The Staffordshire oatcake is quite different to those from Scotland, being more of a pancake in form, containing a significant proportion of wheat flour along with oatmeal. In Yorkshire, only one side of oatcakes are cooked, and they are bubbly in appearance.
In Scotland, oatcakes are made on a girdle (or griddle, in other forms of English) or by baking rounds of oatmeal on a tray. If the rounds are large, they are sliced into farls before baking. Oats are one of the few grains which grow well in the north of Scotland and were, until the 20th century, the staple grain used.
Scottish soldiers in the 14th century carried a metal plate and a sack of oatmeal. According to contemporary accounts, one would heat the plate over fire, moisten a bit of oatmeal and make a cake to "comfort his stomach. Hence it is no marvel that the Scots should be able to make longer marches than other men."
- A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
- Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?
The texture may vary from rough to fine depending on how the oats are ground. Oatcakes may be slightly chewy or hard depending the water content and how long they are cooked. Oatcakes were traditionally eaten with every meal as a major source of carbohydrate in the diet. From the 19th century onwards they were commonly served to accompany soups, meat and fish dishes. Today they are sometimes eaten as an alternative to bread or toast at breakfast.
Nowadays, many brands of oatcakes are commercially available, such as Stockan's, Nairns, Paterson's, and Walkers. Apart from those larger commercial manufacturers of oatcakes, there are many local bakers providing variations on the basic recipe.
Oatcakes (top) with clapshot
Scottish immigrants to the New World brought the recipe for this sustaining food to Canada. One such journey was HMS Elizabeth, which brought immigrants to Prince Edward Island in 1775. Caught in a storm just off the coast of the island, the settlers and crew all survived and made it to the island in life boats, where they waited for three days for the storm to die down. When they returned to their ship to retrieve their possessions and provisions, they discovered that several barrels of oats were among the few foodstuffs that remained. The oats were full of sand and salt water, but that didn't stop them from breaking out the frying pans and cooking oatcakes as their first meal in days. One settler wrote in his journal, "This I thought was the Sweetest morsel I ever Ate in my life though the Outside was burnt black and the middle was not half done".
Oatcakes in Canada gradually moved from being a mainstay of the diet, to being a part of afternoon tea. Sweet and savoury versions were developed, to be served with jam or cheese respectively.
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