#417 West Yorkshire Oatcake or Riddle Bread

This is the last recipe in the Griddle Cakes & Pancakes part of the Teatimechapter – and it was one I have been looking forward to; I am from the West Riding of Yorkshire (a place called Pudsey, which is nestled between Leeds and Bradford), but I had never heard of Yorkshire oatcakes or ‘riddle bread’ until I thumbed through English Food. In Jane’s introduction she described a letter from one of her readers who complained of the difficulties of purchasing oats in Liverpool. The reader, who was from Yorkshire originally, really missed her riddle bread and wished she could get hold of some. How odd that in the 1970s people could not buy oats in the North of England!? It’s the one cereal crop that loves bleak and damp climes and was grown in abundance in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the rest of Northern England and Scotland.

Oats are considered a superfood these days and are widely available, though fine oatmeal is required in this recipe, which can be tricky to get hold of. I wonder if this was what Jane’s Liverpool writer was after. You are unlikely to find it in supermarkets, but some health food shops might stock it. I found some online at a reasonable price.

Making oatcakes – picture from the book The Costume of Yorkshire

I am a huge fan of oats in all forms (however, see below) and really love the Derbyshire oatcake: a large soft, slightly rubbery disc that can be eaten like a pancake, rolled up dripping with butter and sugar. I assumed riddle bread would be the same, but no.

Jane gives detailed instructions on how to make the riddle bread, according to her it made from a batter of fine oatmeal, yeast, salt and water which is quickly ladled and flung in strips across a hot bakestone (or bakstone, if you want to use proper dialect). This produces a pancake with a smooth underside and a bumpy upper side ‘riddled’ with holes. The strips would be hung up before the fire in a wickerwork basket called a creel, or in a kitchen so that they could dry out and be sprinkled into soup. As often with these traditional recipes, it is hard to picture what the technique used actually is, so I cross referenced. Jane usually credits her sources, and she found out about this method in a very good book called Good Things in England, written by Florence White in the 1920s, but there was no extra information to be gleaned.

The odd thing is I cannot find another method for making this riddle bread that matches Jane and Florence’s description. All other sources describe a batter that is shaken upon a chequerboard-like griddle to spread it out and hasten the cooking process, similar to the process of riddling corn, hence ‘riddle’ bread. They could be eaten straight away with plenty of butter like a crumpet or pikelet. This seemed a much easier way of doing things, but, alas, I have to follow Jane’s instruction, so here goes:

With a fork, cream half an ounce of fresh yeast in a little just-warm water and allow to froth. As you wait, mix together in a bowl a pound of fine oatmeal and a ‘scant’ teaspoon ofsalt. When it has attained a decent head, tip into the oatmeal and whisk in enough warm water to make a batter the thickness of double cream.

Get a cast iron bakestone or griddle on the heat and brush with very little oilor lard. Test the heat with a drop of batter; if it puffs up quickly, it is hot enough. Cast a ladleful of the batter across the bakestone in one swift stroke (this may require a few test flings). If you have the heat of the stone right, it will bubble up all around the edges. 

Once the top has lost its rawness, it can be removed and dried out. Jane suggests doing this on string or clothes rails. I found this impossible to do; the lack of gluten in the oats made somewhat brittle pancakes. Instead, I just placed them on drying racks in the oven on a very low heat until dry.
Now the little strips of riddle bread ‘can be used for soups, fish, fowl, cheese, butter, or any other kind of meat in place of any other kind of bread or biscuit.’ My strips were withered sploshes, I’m sure, compared to the foot long ones prepared in bakeries of yore.

#417 West Yorkshire Oatcake or Riddle Bread. ‘The flavour is slightly bitter’, says Jane, ‘and very appetising’. Well I don’t know what I did wrong here, but they were not appetising at all. I tried some fresh from the stone and they were okay, but the dried ones were as dull as dishwater. I tried reheating them and crumbling them into a stew, but however I ate them, they were not appetising. They were not inedible though, so I give them a 2/10.

#386 Herrings in Oatmeal

Herrings and oatmeal used to be staple foods in the North of England and Scotland, where the ‘silver darlings’ were plentiful and oats were pretty much the only cereal crop that could be grown in those inhospitable climes of The North. They were particularly enjoyed at breakfast. We don’t seem to eat fish at breakfasttime anymore, except for the rare kipper or a bit of smoked salmon stirred through scrambled egg, if we’re feeling posh.
Also, you don’t see recipes for this dish in older cookbooks, I assume it is because it’s so straightforward and was so commonplace that writing it down was simply not required. I cannot even find the phrase “herrings in oatmeal” before the 20th Century! More modern books include them of course, even if it just to remind us of the foods our forefathers ate.

Herring in general are quite ignored, I think, though their relative the mackerel is increasing in popularity. It’s strange that in the middle of the last century they were over-fished. It’s a shame they’ve fallen out of favour, as they are very nutritious and very cheap.

It is herring spawning season right now – they are bright-eyed, plump and have massive creamy roes in them, so if you want to try them, now is the right time
I confess, I have never eaten herrings in oatmeal, but I love herrings and I love oatmeal, so they couldn’t be bad.
This recipe is for six, but it is easy to see how it can be scaled up or down:
First of all, you need six fine herring. Ask the fishmonger to open the herring from the back as though they were kippers. Ask him to save the roes (they’re not required for the recipe but they should always be saved).
At home, season the fish and them press them into some medium or fine oatmeal that has been scattered over a plate; about 3 ounces should do it. Fry the herrings in butter until they are lovely and golden-brown. Do them in batches if need be, keeping the cooked ones warm in the oven on a bed of kitchen paper to keep them crisp. Serve with lemon wedges.
Jane tells us the best way to serve these is with simple boiled potatoes and bacon. I had the spuds, but swapped the bacon for a salad! Traditionally fatty bacon would be crisped and fried, and the herring would then be cooked in the bacon fat; next time (and there will be a next time) I’ll do the bacon thing.
#386 Herrings in Oatmeal. Well I have said it many times, but I’m going to say it again, the simple ones are the best. These were delicious, forgotten gems. The chewy oatmeal really complimented the mild herring perfectly. This sort of food has fallen so out of our collective consciousness that you just do not see it anywhere. I might be my new favourite thing. When my little restaurant opens, herrings in oatmeal will certainly be on the menu. 9/10.


#371 Oatcakes

I love an oatcake – in fact I love oats in general, they are my favourite of the cereals.

You may think that Jane Grigson is taking liberties (and she has done this many times already) by including a Scottish recipe in a book of English Food, but you would be mistaken. Oats were the main cereal crop for the most of northern England as well as parts of Wales too; wheat was for the rich and oats and barley for the poor. In Scotland, oats were the only cereal that would grow, so oats have become more synonymous there than in England or Wales.

The best thing I found out was that an oatfield fell victim  to a crop circle in 1676 – the first ever recording of one! The woodcut below shows that people assumed it was the work of the devil, rather than men from outer space.


To make true Scottish oatcakes, you need some specialist equipment (the recipes themselves hardly differ); a spurtle, which is a wooden stick used to for stirring and mixing and it looks a bit like Harry Potter’s wand; a special rolling pin called a bannock-stick that leaves a criss-cross pattern on the rolled out dough; a spathe, a special piece of equipment that is used to move the oatcakes from board to girdle that is heart-shaped with a long handle; then there is the banna-rack, a toaster used to dry the oatcakes.  I do own a spurtle, but the other pieces of equipment are rather more tricky to get hold of.
You can make oatcakes large or small, leave them whole (bannocks) or cut into quarters (farls). Here endeth today’s Scottish vocab lesson. I found this wealth of information in a great book that I picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Inverness last year. It is called The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes by F. Marian McNeill and it’s well worth getting hold of a copy.

Oatcakes are somewhere between a pancake and a biscuit, but appear in the Pancakes & Griddle/Girdlecakes  section of the Teatimechapter and not the Biscuitspart. I think I would classify them as a biscuit even though they are cooked on a girdle because they’re so crisp; after their initial cooking , they would be dried out in front of the fire and then stored in a meal-chest or girnel covered in oats. We use Tupperware today of course.

I made these oatcakes to take up with me on a visit to my friend Frances who lives in an amazing 17th century house in the Lake District. In her instructions, Jane says to ‘toast lightly before the fire before serving them’, and Frances’s house is not short on proper roaring fires as you can see by the photo below.

Mix together 4 ounces of medium oatmeal with 4 ounces of plain flour and a level teaspoon of salt, then rub in 2 ounces of lard, dripping or poultry fat(vegetarians can, of course, use hard vegetable fat, but be careful to buy some not made from hydrogenated fats). Mix in enough cold water to make a soft dough. Roll out thinly on a ‘oatmeal-strewn board’ and cut out circles using a scone cutter.
To attain really thin oatcakes, Jane suggests slapping them ‘between your oatmealy hands. I tried this but it was difficult. I found it much easier to roll and cut out circles, then rolling the circles separately on the board. They weren’t perfectly circular, but they were very thin and crisp. The mixture made me 16 good-sized oatcakes.
Before you griddle to oatcakes make a glaze by beating together an egg with a tablespoon of milk and a teaspoon of sugar.

Heat up an ungreased griddle or other suitable heavy-based pan. When hot, place the oatcakes on the griddle and paint them immediately with the glaze. Let them cook through – you know this is happening because the glaze dries and goes shiny when they’re done. There is no need to turn them.
Cool on a wire rack and store in an airtight container and toast them dry in front of a lovely fire, or failing that back on the griddle or in the oven.

We ate them fresh from the fire with butter spread on them.

#371 Oatcakes. These were very good indeed, they were good and salty and the slightly sweet glaze counteracted it perefectly. Most importantly the almost too-heavy seasoning brought out the lovely toasted oatiness – I think it is important to say that I used organic oats, and I am sure that this made a difference because it really was a hit of oat flavour. I loved how they all curved and curled as they cooked too. Very good 8/10

#186 Cheese and Oat Biscuits

To go with the vegetable soup I made yesterday, Old Griggers recommends these cheese and oat biscuits to help pad it out into a main meal. Indeed, they go well with most soups, she says. She also says that they are good piled high with cream cheese, finely chopped onion and Cayenne pepper. I’ve never made my own savoury biscuits, so I was interested in seeing how these turned out. They are also cheap to make; a prerequisite these days.

Mix together 3 ounces of rolled oats with 5 ounces of plain flour and rub in 3 ½ ounces of salted butter. Next stir in 4 ounces of grated cheese – a mixture of grated strong Cheddar and Parmesan (I did a ratio of about 3:1) and form it into a dough with two egg yolks. Use a little cold water to bring it together if need be. Season the dough well with salt and pepper. Now roll out thinly and cut our rounds with a scone cutter, place them on a greased baking tray and bake at 200⁰C for around 10 minutes until golden. Cool on a wire rack.

#186 Cheese and Oat Biscuits. I was really impressed by these. So impressed, in fact, that I managed to scoff them all over the course of the evening. Both the use of strong cheeses and a good seasoning is very important, and that is what makes them so much better than any cheese biscuit you could buy. The fact that they’re a piece of piss to make is an added bonus! 8/10.