I mentioned last time that many of Scotland’s wonderful baked goods with evocative names like “Aberdeen Buttery", “Forfar Bridie" and “Selkirk Bannock" are increasingly hard to find. But there are a couple of Scottish favourites that have never gone out of fashion. Shortbread, perhaps the best known, is still made by most home bakers in Scotland and tartan tins of the buttery biscuits are sold all over the world. Oatcakes too, crumbly, savoury biscuits often served with cheese, are very much at home in the modern world.

The oatcake started life as the staple of Scottish peasants, known as “crofters", but in recent years has been embraced as a healthy alternative to wheat breads.

Anyone with an interest in the lost art of Scottish baking should order a copy of F. Marian McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions And Recipes, first published in 1929 and recently reissued in a lovely new hardback edition. With its descriptions of the inside of a shepherd’s kitchen, instructions on how to stove a howtowdie, even a mention of “Scots Rabbit Curry", the book is a culinary treasure trove, full of historical detail and colourful, loving anecdote.

F. Marian McNeill’s book in hardback. Photo: Pamela Timms
F. Marian McNeill’s book in hardback. Photo: Pamela Timms

The “girdle" that McNeill saw was a large wrought-iron disk with a hoop handle attached so the pan could be hung over a fire from a chain and hook. Oatcakes are still sometimes made on top of the stove in a flat pan though they’re now mostly baked in an oven.

In the book’s section on oatcakes, McNeill describes over a dozen different varieties, quoting Robert Burns, “Oatcakes are a delicate relish when eaten warm with ale", and repeats an instruction from 1835 that oatcakes “should always be sent to the table with fresh herrings". Until recently, we learn, fishermen from the Isle of Skye used to dip a handful of oatmeal over the side of the boat into the sea and “when it was thoroughly moistened, knead into a bannock. On this frugal fare they could subsist, if need were, for days".

What you won’t find is what we today would recognize as a recipe. We are told we will need certain special equipment—a spurtle, or porridge stick; a bannock-stick (a type of rolling pin which creates a criss-cross pattern on the oatcakes); a spathe (“a heart-shaped implement with a long handle used for transferring the cakes from board to girdle") and a banna-rack, or toaster. But there are no precise quantities or instructions. Happily, the method is straightforward requiring only enough hot water to be added to oatmeal to produce a firm, roll-able dough.

Incidentally, the Scots often traditionally served oatcakes with “crowdie", a traditional Highland cheese similar to paneer. The whey from the cheese making was then used to mix the oatmeal for oatcakes. If you want to make your oatcakes feel completely at home in India, use ghee (clarified butter) instead of butter. However you make them, you’ll produce wonderfully wholesome oaty, toasty biscuits which are a delicious and healthy accompaniment to soup, cheese, or hummus.

Scottish Oatcakes

Makes about 12 round oatcakes

Ingredients

200g medium oatmeal (if you can’t find traditional oatmeal, grind 200g of porridge oats to a powder instead)

Half a tsp bicarbonate of soda

Half a tsp salt

25g butter or ghee

4 tbsp water (or preferably, whey)

Method

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Melt the butter and water in a pan. Mix the oatmeal, bicarbonate of soda and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the centre of the oatmeal, then pour in the butter and water. Using your hands, mix well to form a stiff dough that holds together without being sticky. You may need to add a little more water.

Sprinkle some more oatmeal on a work surface and pat the dough out into a round. With a well-floured rolling pin, roll out the dough as thinly as possible, about 3-4mm. Use a cookie cutter or glass to cut out rounds. Place the rounds on a baking tray and bake for 20-30 minutes until crisp but not browned. Leave the oatcakes to cool slightly before eating. They will keep well for a week in an airtight container.

Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at Eatanddust.com.

Also Read | Pamela’s previous Lounge columns

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