"...A Potteries poppadom, a Tunstall tortilla, a clay suzette..."
A few days ago, I was in Sainsbury's, Oxford. I was stocking up on croissants. I noticed a chap to my right. He was piling chapatis into his basket. I kept looking, out of the corner of my eye, because he really was taking quite a lot of these things. Suddenly, something struck me about the packaging. I took a closer look. I realized that there wasn't a single chapati in the basket, yet there were, in fact, at least four dozen Staffordshire oatcakes.
I was at a loss. For me, these tasty savoury galettes bring back memories of coming home from primary school and having a quick tea before Neighbours starts. They taste of greasy spoons in The Potteries, and slippery full English breakfasts. What on earth could they be doing in Oxford? I know it's a multicultural city, but multicultural doesn't usually include Stoke.
Let's have a look at this regional delicacy, and why it may be on the brink of world-domination.
It was the Romans who introduced the oat to Britain's uplands. Had they not, the Staffordshire oatcake would never have existed. For centuries, scores of variations on the oatcake theme co-existed. The basic recipe was similar, but there were many regional differences. Slowly but surely, these yeasty treats dwindled in number, until they became all but extinct. The Scottish Oatcake is still going strong, of course, but is very different from its Stokey cousin. In 1776, James Boswell was visiting his friend and fellow Scot Samuel Johnson in Lichfield, and came across the Staffordshire oatcake on his travels. He described them as "not hard as in Scotland, but soft like Yorkshire cake, served with breakfast."
As the pottery industry grew, Stoke-on-Trent's streets filled with hungry potters, kiln firemen, carters, saggar maker's bottom knockers, and so on. The working conditions in places such as Wedgwood, Spode, and the many other potteries, were not ideal. The lunch breaks were not long. These young chaps in flat caps needed something quick, filling, and cheap to put in their stomachs at midday. This is where the oatcake comes in. Small businesses began to pop up, operating out of the front room kitchens of terraced houses all over the city. Once the order was ready, the cook would pass the oatcakes out through the sash window. This enterprising little sideline grew into a viable business for the better bakers. Many have expanded and now run small but perfectly-formed shops. One, The Hole in The Wall on Waterloo Street, Hanley, still sells its wares through the front window.
What's so tasty about these things?
You really have to try one to get it. The basic description of an oatcake doesn't sound especially appealing. They are pancake-like discs of carbohydratey goodness, made with oatmeal, flour, water, a pinch of salt, and one of yeast. This batter is then cooked on a very hot griddle. The end result is a brownish, vaguely rubbery floppy disc (no pun intended). That may sound incredibly unappetizing, but the secret of a successful oatcake is its filling.
Remembering that the oatcake began its life as a breakfast item, it is not surprising that it is often filled with the kind of foods you find included in a full English breakfast. And cheese, because everything tastes better with cheese. Sausage, tomato, mushroom, black pudding, white pudding, bacon, ham, onion, baked beans, and egg - in pretty much any combination - have all made an appearance in someone's oatcake at some time or other. What they (almost) all have in common is that cheese cannot be avoided. Cheddar, Cheshire, and Lancashire cheeses are the favoured oatcake-stuffers. The "cheesy oatcake" is my particular favourite, but I have occasionally been known to throw a couple of mushrooms into the oatcake before rolling it up.
Oatcake makers generally keep their exact recipes secret. It's understandable - they wouldn't want the competition finding out just how many grains of salt they add to their batter, now would they. So I'm afraid I can't give you a recipe to try out at home. It will have to be shop-bought oatcakes. This is rather problematic, because the chances are that you don't live in Stoke-on-Trent. If you live in Oxford, you can buy some at Sainsbury's. If you live elsewhere in the UK, it looks like you might be able to find some in a supermarket. If you live anywhere else, you will probably have a long flight ahead of you. The other problem is that supermarket oatcakes pale in comparison to the real thing.
The filling will have a lot to make up for, so make it as tasty as you can. Once you've chosen, lay your oatcake out flat on a dinner plate. If you are having cheese (which you sort of have to), it's essential to grate it. Don't just put slices of cheese on your oatcake, I beg you. Arrange whatever other fillings you fancy on top of the pile of cheese. Next, roll up your oatcake, as though it were a pancake. You now have two warming options. The traditional method of heating up your oatcake is to bring a pan of water to the boil, then remove its lid, and plonk a plate on top. You then flop your cold oatcake onto the plate, and cover the lot up with a second plate - upside down this time. Leave to warm for a few minutes, then use great care when it's heated through - the steam can burn. Alternatively, microwave for about 40 seconds. Your authentic Potteries treat is ready to eat. A blob of brown sauce, ketchup, or salad cream on the side of your plate is a delicious addition. If you're really hungry, serve with extra beans, fried mushrooms, scrambled eggs or something similar.
Oatcakes: the best thing Stoke has to offer.
www.oatcakes.net, with kind permission. You can actually order oatcakes to be delivered to your front door on this site!
Too many years in Stoke.
The opening quotation is from Arthur Berry.