I’m talking about Staffordshire oatcakes – soft, savoury, with a slight hint of sourness. Not the hard little Scottish oatcakes (though there’s not much nicer with a bit of cheese and chutney). No, a Staffordshire oatcake is a very different thing.
My dad is from Stoke, so the oatcake is part of my childhood – and yet, not quite. It was a treat you got when we visited Granny and Grandad. We took dozen home with us as well.
The nearest one to Granny’s was down the backs. The back streets, cobbled – those cobbles worn by so many feet. You’d come back clutching a still-warm paper parcel. If you were lucky, you’d had to wait while there were cooked, on a big slanting griddle – ladlefuls of batter swirled into perfect circles. And you’d have one to eat on the way home slightly crisp, soft on the inside. Hot.
They are a big part of our family communication. I gave my dad and my brother oatcake mix for Christmas. My brother sent me a boxful – a massive boxful, because they freeze really well – for my birthday a couple of years ago. My brother ALWAYS has a packet in the fridge (or maybe he gets them in when I’m visiting?). My ex-sister-in-law gave my brother a framed copy of a poem I’d written about them for Christmas. They are part of our love language, part of our story, part of our identity. That’s a lot for an oaty pancake to carry, but it carries it well.
I made some from scratch the other day. It’s not often you recreate a childhood favourite – and a commercial childhood favourite, at that – and make something that tastes exactly right and completely recognisable. My own children like them, but don’t have that emotional attachment to them that I have. My friend from Stoke, Bom, loves them – we’ve sat in his living room at 1am gorging on oatcakes.
They are hard to get outside of Stoke (and not so easy in Stoke, now). You can get tortillas everywhere, but oatcakes? No. Sainsbury’s do them – they’re OK – not as thinly delicate as I remember, not as complexly textured. Mine are better.
Anyway, you’d bring them back to Granny’s, and she’d be waiting. Fried bacon in the pan. Not grilled, because under the grill there was a pyrex dish of melted cheese. Maybe a sausage. You’d scoop cheese out of that bowl, spoon it onto the oatcake, add a rasher, roll it up. Maybe an egg on the side, for dipping. Oh, perfection.
They’re a working man’s food – cheap, filling, easy to eat on the go. That’s not how people eat these days, so the old hole in the wall shops are all gone. But they’re an iconic foodstuff. The madeleines of the Potteries.
I’d never heard of this before!