‘A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.’ So went the definition for oats in Samuel Johnson’s first English dictionary in 1755. Is it any wonder the Scots have been wanting independence for centuries?
These days oats are enjoying a superfood moment in the healthy eating press. Porridge and oatcakes are promoted as low-GI foods that keep you feeling full for longer. Don’t let this put you off.
I love Scottish oatcakes for being the simplest of rustic foods, yet being the best thing possible to eat with cheese. Oatcakes stand up to strong cheddars and blues with a coarse nutty integrity that leaves crackers in the dust.
Oatcakes are very good with colder climate flavours such as smoked salmon and cream fraiche. Or in Scotland, they are sometimes eaten with a highland dairy product similar to cottage cheese called crowdie.
The damp climate of Scotland has always been a friend to the oat.
A report from the 14th Century French historian Jean Froissart says Scottish soldiers would travel with a bag of oatmeal that they would moisten to a paste and cook on a disc over the open flame.
In its most elementary form an oatcake is simply this – an oat and water paste, griddled or baked. Lard/butter, baking soda, sugar and salt are added to enhance.
Oats were a constant presence in the lives of the highland Scots who lived on clan lands as crofters. A typical crofter’s stone cottage would have a peat fire where porridge bubbled in a cauldron, and where oatcakes were prepared on the girdle.
In contemporary Scotland the ubiquity of locally made oatcakes in food stores and supermarkets is a pleasure in an increasingly homogenised consumer environment.
Mass emigration from Scotland in the 19th and 20th Centuries – including to New Zealand –means a lot of Scottish traditions and recipes have travelled. So it’s surprising that oatcakes are not more conspicuous here in New Zealand, at least commercially.
They may be more visible in the form of sugar-added descendants.
Before I ever tried Scottish oatcakes, I was familiar with a sweeter biscuit variation called ‘milk oaties’. My grandmother used to make these, based on her Scottish grandmother’s recipe. They had a sweet, mellow smell as they were baking, and my grandfather used to love them with mature cheddar and a cup of tea.
Even Anzac biscuits are in the oatcake lineage. They are based on the ‘rolled oat biscuit’ or ‘crispie’ that had become popular in New Zealand since the1890s, and were renamed in honour of the Anzac landing (according to From Kai to Kiwi Kitchen by Helen Leach).
As good as these derivations are in their own right, sweet oat biscuits are not quite the same. It’s well worth making your own of the original.
How to make Scottish oatcakes
This is the recipe I used from the New Zealand Herald.
Putting your rolled oats in the food processor, as suggested in the recipe, allows you to get a finer consistency of rolled oats necessary for baking. If you don’t have a food processor, try buying what are called ‘porridge oats’ as they are already finer.
Where to buy Scottish oatcakes in Auckland
Farro Fresh (branches in Mt Wellington and Mairangi Bay) stock Scottish oatcakes. See their website for contact details.