#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

#307 Mashed Potato with Dulse

Nobody really eats dulse, or any other seaweed, in England these days, though they used to. It is a pity because I do like the stuff. It seems to be popular still in Ireland though; my friend Evelyn often brings back a bag of it whenever she visits home and I like to steal a few pieces.

Dulse had been eaten for over one thousand years in North-Western Europe, the ancient Celtic Warriors of old ate dulse as they were marching and during the seventeenth century, and British sailors used it to prevent scurvy (although it was actually originally used as an alternative to chewing tobacco).
Its popularity in Ireland as well as Scotland led to dulse becoming liked in the USA too when they immigrated over the pond, although none of my American friends seem to have heard of it.
The Dulse Gatherers by Willaim Marshall Brown, 1863-1936

The dulse industry has obviously died a bit of a death in England and the rest of the UK and Ireland compared to days of yore. Charles Dickens, writing in 1858, reminisces about childhood holidays in Aberdeen where there were often over a dozen ‘dulse-wives’ selling dulse:

[O]f all the figures on the Castlegate, none where more picturesque than the dulse-wives. They sat in a row on little wooden stools, with their wicker creels placed before them on the granite paving stones. Dressed in clean white mutches, or caps, with silk-hankerchiefs spread over their breasts, and blue stuff wrappers and petticoats, the ruddy and sonsie dulse-women looked the types of health and strength… Many a time, where my whole weekly income was a halfpenny, a Friday’s bawbee, I have expended it on dulse, in preference to apples, pears, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, wild peas and sugar-sticks.
He recalls a conversation:
A young one would say: “Come to me, bonnie laddie, and I’ll gie ye mair for yer bawbee than any o’ them.”
An old one would say: “Come to me, bonnie laddie, and I’ll tell what like yer wife will be.”
“Yer dinner ken yerself.”
“Hoot aye – I ken brawly: she’ll hae a head and feet, an mou’, and eyen, and may be a nose, and will be as auld as me, if she lives as lang.”
“Aye: but ye gie me very little dulse for my bawbee.”
“Aye,” replies the honest woman, adding another handful, “but sic a wife is weel worth mair siller.”
The dulse-wives exploded into laughter, when the woman suggested some one like herself, as the ideal wife which youth is doomed always to pursue and never to attain.
Oh! those dulse-wives.

Anyway, enough prattle, time for the recipe:
It could be easier, really. First, scrub and then boil some potatoes in their skins without adding any salt. Remove the skins and mash them. Next, crumble the dried dulse and fry it in olive oil – you’ll need a quarter of an ounce of dulse for every pound of potatoes used. This takes just a few seconds. Add the oil and dulse to the spuds and mix, mashing in some extra olive oil if need be.
Serve with lamb (as I did), beef, chicken or fish.
#307 Mashed Potato with Dulse. Well this was good mash, but there wasn’t much flavour of dulse in there. It did give the potatoes an attractive green colour though. I thought it strange that the recipe asked for olive oil rather than butter – olive oil was not used that much when English Food was first written in 1974. It would have been most likely found in chemist’s shops, where it was used to remove ear wax. 5/10

#287 Scotch Woodcock

Here’s a quickie that was a popular savoury in Victorian times in the same vein as Locket’s savoury and Gloucester ale and cheese. None of them are really eaten these days, though most of the time they are very tasty (though also very rich; no wonder everybody had gout). Although such savouries were served at the end of a meal in those days, it is is perfect for a first course or as a light lunch these days, I reckon.
It doesn’t contain any actual woodcock, of course, but is basically anchovies and eggs on toast – the fish and eggs being a substitute for the prized game bird. Just like how Welsh Rabbit is really cheese and bread instead of the delicious meaty mammal.
This recipe makes six woodcocks:
Start by draining a tin of anchovies before mashing them with two ounces of butter. Next, get the toast ready – cut circles out of six slices of bread and toast them on both sides. Spread with butter and then the anchovy mixture. Keep warm whilst you make the eggy sauce. In a saucepan, add two egg yolks to half a pint of whipping or double cream. Beat the yolks and add pepper a little salt and a good pinch of Cayenne. Stir over a moderate heat until the sauce thickens. Spoon over the anchovies, add a flourish of chopped parsley and serve it forth. If you don’t fancy making the thickened cream sauce, make some softly scrambled eggs made with a bit of cream instead.
#287 Scotch Woodcock. Previous anchovy-based recipes in this blog have ranged from the most delicious to the worst and most bizarre. This one however can join the ranks of the delicious. The intense saltiness of the anchovies was balanced very well with the bland creamy sauce. Very, very good. I ended up eating three and it gave me stomach ache. Hey-ho, you’ve to take the rough with the smooth in life aintcha? Tres bon, 8/10.

#193 Kidney Soup

Kidney Soup was apparently a kitchen standby in households of times past – particularly in Scotland. Indeed, this recipe is taken from Florence B. Jack’s book Cookery for Every Household. Ms Jack was the principal of the Edinburgh School of Domestic Arts, and very austere she was too.

Now I know it sounds weird, but this is a classic recipe that is also cheap – cheap because it’s main ingredient is kidney, of course. We are being told that offal and the cheaper cuts of meats are suddenly becoming popular due to the recession, but I have not seen any evidence of really from the people that I speak to (though I have in butcher’s shop windows). When saying I’ve been doing this recipe, there has been nothing but pulled faces and dry retching (the only exception being Anthea – frequent blog commenter – she ate it often as a child). I must admit, however, that as much as I love kidneys, I wasn’t quite sure about eating them in soup. However, this book is full of surprises.

To start with you need a whole ox kidney; cut away any fat and gristly bits and cut up the kidney into small pieces. Brown it in an ounce and a half of butter or dripping in a large saucepan along with a sliced onion. Pour over four pints of beef stock and stir, adding some salt. Bring the stock to a boil and skim any scum that rises to the top. Add a bouquet garni and some spices: 20 peppercorns, a blade of mace and a quarter teaspoon of celery seeds. Tie the bouquet and spices in a piece of muslin first. Simmer for 3 to 4 hours, covered on the hob or in the oven.

When ready, skim any fat from the surface and strain the soup. As with most soups and stews its best let it cool down completely – overnight is best – so that you be sure of getting rid of all the fat. Pick out the bits of kidney and give them a rinse. Heat up the soup again and add an ounce of flour that has first been slaked in a tablespoon of mushroom ketchup. (The recipe doesn’t actually say what kind of ketchup, but with this being beef, mushroom or tomato are the best to use.) let the soup thicken slightly and add the kidney pieces. Finally season with more salt and pepper if required, plus some lemon or orange juice and a dash of sherry to add complexity of the flavour.

FYI: the kidneys were thought to be the part of the body concerned with conscience and reflection. Apparently, God would inspect the kidneys to see how good someone had been. In fact, one kidney was responsible for good thoughts, the other evil. The Latin word renes, is used to describe anything of the kidney (e.g. renal), but also is the root word for reins too. So there you go; a choice nugget of factoid for you there.

#193 Kidney Soup. This was a really delicious soup! I loved it the slightly spiced beef consommé was light and tasty and complimented the strong metallic gamey taste of the kidneys. It requires a bit for forethought to make it, but it is worth it I reckon. Cheap, tasty and good for you. 6.5/10.

#190 Finnan Haddock

A bit of a cop out this one as it it’s not really a recipe, though it is listed as one in the book. It’s actually more a bit of advice on good eating. There’s many like this in the book. Here, Griggers discusses the dos and don’ts of buying Finnan haddock, which is smoked haddock. We call it Finny haddock in Yorkshire. Findon, or Finnan is a small coastal village near Aberdeen in Scotland. It is there where the proper stuff is made. Griggers warns us of buying those ‘golden fillets’ that are that weird shiny orange colour like cheap sweaty spray-on tan, which I suppose it is but with added smoke flavour. Splarf. My mum used to buy them and they are vastly inferior to the proper stuff. There have been a few recipes so far in the book that has used Finnan haddock, and I think that I have mentioned all this before. However, if you want the really good shit, it is Arbroath that you need to travel to. There, Arbroath smokies are made. As I was in the fishmongers buying some prawns (see a later entry for what I wanted those for) there some were, just lying there. So I bought one, as you have to be opportunistic in this game.

So the recipe? “Heat briefly under the grill or in the oven, and eaten with plenty of butter and bread, or used for kedgeree.” So a brief grilling it was for my little smokie.

#190 Finnan Haddock. If you ever see those little Arbroath smokies in the fishmongers you have to buy some. The flesh was so succulent and sweet due to its protection by the now leathery skin, and the smoke flavour was nothing like anything I’ve tasted before: it was as though it had only just been taken out of the smokehouse and slipped onto my plate. The smoke flavour was sweet and acrid, not unlike a good cigar. Excellent. 8/10. If I catch any of you buying a golden fillet, I will come over personally and poke you in the eye with it.

#183 Scotch Rabbit/Rarebit (1749)

The second of the three rabbits/rarebits that appear in English Food (the third being English of course). After the appearance of Welsh rabbit in the early eighteenth century, and its subsequent popularity, meant that it diversified. Griggers finds this recipe in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 book Art of Cookery. Scotch rabbit seems much easier (and cheaper, natch) as the only ingredients are cheese, toast and butter. The recipe is in fact just lifted directly out of her book, so that is what I’ll do:

Toast a piece of bread nicely on both sides, butter it, cut a slice of cheese about as big as the bread, toast it on both sides, and lay it on the bread.

Easy? Let’s go through it again:
Toast a piece of bread nicely on both sides, butter it. Check.
…cut a slice of cheese about as big as the bread… Yep, good, done that.
…toast it on both sides… Say what now? How the hell are you meant to toast a piece of cheese on both sides!?

This is what I did: I cut the cut and laid it on a piece of buttered grease-proof paper in the hope it could grill it and turn it over. This was not the case as you can see by the photo!

#183 Scotch Rabbit (Rarebit) – 2/10. What a pathetic sight it was. The cheese just stuck to the paper and ended up a big mess. What I don’t understand is that normal good-old cheese on toast is better, tastier and above all easy to make. There is no wonder at all why the Scotch rabbit never took off.

#66 Shortbread

I made these shortcakes to go with the Mangoes of the Sun dish, but make them any time you want. Greg, Lee and I polished the remaining ones off with mug-fulls of tea and even white wine (we were a bit pissed by then, though!). Make the biscuits any size you want – I used a fluted pastry cutter, but use whatever is at hand, or cut into fingers, or even to a plate sized bit. Traditionally, oats should be used, but the English way is to replace them with flour and corn flour to give the biscuits a delicate, crumbly texture

First, make a flour mixture made up of two parts plain flour to one part corn flour (or rice flour). Either make a big batch of this or make precisely nine ounces. I made just what I needed, though I think I’ll be making some more pretty soon. Mix in 3 ounces of cold, cubes butter and one of sugar (In other words, a ratio of 3:2:1, so you can actually use any amount you want!). Either use a mixer or the tips of your fingers to rub in the butter, and once the mixture is breadcrumb-like, bring it together and knead briefly to form a dough. It will seem too dry at first, but the heat of your hands will help it. Don’t over work the dough either – you want a crumbly biscuit, not a cookie. Roll out the mixture to your preferred thickness and cut into your preferred shape. Put on a baking tray and scatter with more sugar. Bake at 180°C until cooked, you must take them out before they stat to colour, so keep an eye out for the merest hint – the timing will depend on the shape and thickness of your shortbreads.

Lee with said shortcake and mangoes

FYI: Traditional Scottish shortbread goes back to around the Twelfth Century, and it is traditional in the Shetland Isles to break a giant shortbread over the head of the bride on the day of the wedding.

#66 Shortbread – 9/10. Wonderful, crumbly and tasty; and this was the first time I’d ever made them. You cannot but shortcakes like this no matter where you go – they are too crumbly and short to be packaged. You’d just end up with a packet of dust.