Sowing your wild rice. Feeling your millet. Hmmm. Things are just
not the same without oats, are they? Actually, in recent generations,
oats have enjoyed a better reputation than they have occasionally had
in the past. Now that it has been discovered that oats are incredibly
good for you, with abundant soluble and insoluble fiber, they are
practically revered. It was not always so.
For many centuries, oats were deemed fit only for animals and
barbarians. While Rome was still an empire, Pliny wrote contemptuously
of oats, which were favored by the Germanic tribes. It was believed
that such rough food must produce a rough character (oats are rough,
barbarians are rough, there must be a connection). Paracelsus wrote
that oatcakes, as well as cheese and milk, would contribute to having a
disposition that lacked subtlety—i.e., you’re not quite
civilized if you consume these things. (How times have changed. Cheese
not civilized?) In his great Dictionary of the English Language,
Samuel Johnson took a swipe at oats, describing them as “a grain
which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports
the people.” (Come to think of it, that looks like a swipe at the
It is thought that a more valid reason for being annoyed with
oats is that wild oats are so hardy that they can push out other grains
that are being grown, particularly if farming is being done under less
than ideal conditions. Oats are just plain tough. When wild oats
invaded wheat and barley fields, farmers would rip them out and burn
them—until they figured out that oats were surviving where wheat
and barley often did not. (And the comments about feeding oats to
animals are not metaphorical—horses love oats, and oats are still
important for feeding livestock.)
There is some debate as to where oats originated, but wild oats
were being consumed in northern Europe in Neolithic times, so it seems
likely that this was their first home. Also, oats prefer the cooler
climates that characterize these regions. Oats were cultivated in
central Europe during the Bronze age and had spread to Britain by the
The Celts were the people who most wholeheartedly adopted oats.
The Scots, Welsh, and Irish all have foods, drinks, and ceremonies that
employ oats. Even the Bretons, the Celts of France, cherish oatmeal,
which is sometimes called “Breton gruel,” though non-Celtic
France has little interest in oats. Even today, in Europe, this hardy
and hearty grain is still most popular among northern Europeans and
Celts. However, in the United States, oats now rival corn and wheat in
importance as a grain crop.
I first tried Scottish oatcakes while traveling in Scotland. A
friend and I were driving across country and had stopped at a dairy
that specializes in goat milk products. The goat cheese was served with
oatcakes, and I instantly became addicted (must be in my blood).
Oatcakes have a wonderful, nutty, wholesome taste. They go fabulously
well with cheese, but they are also great with a bit of honey.
Actually, oatcakes excel in supporting roles. They also make good
breakfast substitutes—oatmeal on the go.
Oatcakes are generally rolled into 6-inch to 8-inch circles and then
cut into fourths. The Scottish name for the round oatcake is bannock,
while the sections into which the bannock is divided are farls.
(Farl comes from the term fardel, which means “a
fourth part,” though now the term farl refers only to
quarters of oatcakes or shortbread.) They would originally have been
made on a hot griddle over an open fire, but they translate well to an
indoor griddle or heavy frying pan, and can also be baked in the oven
(my preferred method, because they don’t have to be tended). They
are remarkably easy to make and very wholesome. Enjoy.
1½ cups oatmeal
⅛ tsp. salt
1 Tbs. butter, drippings, or lard
¼ tsp. baking soda
½ cup hot water
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Put the
oatmeal, salt, and baking soda in a bowl and mix together. Melt the
butter (or drippings or lard) and drizzle it over the oats. Add the hot
water, and stir the mixture vigorously into a stiff dough.
Turn out the dough onto a flat surface—or better yet, onto
a sheet of wax paper on a flat surface. If the dough sticks, sprinkle
the surface lightly with a tablespoon or two of the extra oatmeal.
Knead the dough thoroughly. You want the oats basically to lose their
individuality—the dough should begin to look a little bit like
rough cookie dough. Separate the dough into two equal portions. Roll
each portion into a ball, then use a rolling pin to roll each ball into
a round that is about ⅛ inch thick. With this recipe, the two rounds
will each be about 6 inches across.
Transfer the rounds to a greased cookie sheet. Cut each round
into quarters. Bake for 30-35 minutes. If you want them to be evenly
golden, you can turn them over half way through the baking time. Enjoy
warm, or put in an airtight storage container.
You can also cook your oatcakes on a griddle set over medium
heat. The oatcakes should take about 3 minutes to cook. They are done
when the edges start to curl. Then put them under the broiler until
they are slightly brown.
Drippings or other meat fat would traditionally
be the most common fat for producing oatcakes, but while these were for
a long time the most readily available fats for home cooks, a stick of
butter is now an easier choice, and it makes the flavor more
consistent. However, if you make a roast, or perhaps a pound of bacon,
you might want to take a crack at making these the old-fashioned way.
If you want to make these a little fancier, you
can roll the dough out and then use a wine glass to cut out bannocks
that are perfectly round. Don’t quarter these smaller oatcakes.
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