Extract from an early version of The Ciabatta Years (Short Books, Spring 09)
The other principal food item of renown is the Staffordshire Oatcake. These are thin, floppy pancakes that are just under the size of a dinner plate and are made from a recipe that nobody knows. Oatcakes are produced on large black griddles in little shops like this.
The photograph is from 1973. Though many Oatcake shops have been modernized and updated, you can still find the odd outlet that is a match for this one.
Oatcakes are sold in dozens, and may be eaten all day long, for breakfast, dinner or tea. They are the indigenous fast food. They can be warmed under the grill, or in the oven or microwave and are usually served rolled up like a Mexican tortilla. They can be filled with anything, sweet or savoury. The most popular fillings consist of combinations of the full English breakfast: bacon and cheese; sausage and cheese; bacon, sausage and cheese; bacon, sausage, egg and cheese, and so on. Cheese alone is the most popular filling. It is pronounced chayse, as in, ‘Can yer do us a couple o chayse oatcakes, duck?’ In the Potteries, ‘Duck’ is the standard form of affectionate address, like love, or darling. This has nothing to do with the bird that goes so well with orange sauce, rather it is said to find its origin in the Saxon word ‘ducas’ which was meant as a term of respect. (In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare uses the phrase ‘O dainty Ducke: O Deere!’ as a term of endearment.)
All breakfast oatcake combinations are excellent, and are only improved by the accompaniment of brown sauce, or ketchup, or both.
Brother Bumble took his Oatcakes toasted with sugar, which is unconventional, and to my mind not a great idea; nor is filling them with black pudding, which you do see tried. Black pudding is a delicacy best eaten raw from a cocktail stick. You would often find it offered this way at parties in the ‘seventies, though it is a practice that is dying out. Oatcakes also come in a smaller, plumper, and less oaty version. This is called a pikelet. Pikelets are about five inches across and are sold plain or with currants in the mix. They can be toasted in the same way as crumpets. Though it is something of a heresy to say as much, I prefer pikelets to oatcakes, and it is for this reason, and for other reasons like it (such as drinking white wine) that such friends that I have who remain in the city are happy to refer to me as ‘a middle class gayer.’
The oatcake maker is a legend in Stoke. He begins work at around 4 am and finishes about mid-day. A few years back I watched a man making oatcakes in a little shop very similar to the one in the picture. It was an expert skill that he employed, it was a joy to observe. He dropped identical puddles of batter in straight lines, eight-by-three onto a long griddle. When he had done, he returned to the first and flipped each oatcake in turn with a spatula. He returned once more to the beginning and removed the batch to a cool in racks where they would be made up into dozens and half-dozens. And then he began again. Stoke-on-Trent is synonymous with the pottery industry, which is all but dead now, the jobs having been exported to countries where labour comes even cheaper. When I was growing up, many of the mothers of my friends worked in the pot-banks, as the factories are called, where they were engaged in an activity called ‘piece-work.’ With piece work, you were paid according to how many times a day you could repeat a task such as stamping the underside of a plate with the company’s mark, or covering biscuit-wear (the unvarnished pottery) with glaze prior to its final firing, or by how many handles you could fit to a cup/jug/teapot etc. The oatcake maker is at one with this culture, this repetitive manner of accumulating a living.
As I purchased my dozen (which is something I do whether I want them or not when I return home, it’s a reflex and an instinct), I asked the man how many Oatcakes he made in a week. He had to pause to think: he had no idea. Between us, the shop manager and I worked out a rough estimation. With weekends being busier than weekdays, the manager averaged his sales out and came up with a figure of something like two-hundred dozen a week.
Are you the only person who does the making? I asked the man.
He regarded me as if this was the most ludicrous question he had ever heard. Who the fuck else would do it? his look said.
I worked out that the man made 2,400 pancakes, nearly four hundred a day, over a six and-a-half-day week: they open on Sunday mornings too because folk in Stoke like their Oatcakes fresh. Sunday morning Oatcakes are a ritual. Normally, the old fella goes out to get them with his Sunday paper.
My mother never did piece work, she was too much of a free spirit for that life. As the day of the decree nisi drew near (decree nisi was the single Latin expression that every schoolboy in Stoke knew), mother made it her business to organize paid employment for herself. The job was in credit drapery. Put in it’s simplest terms, credit drapery is selling tea-towels and pots and pans out of the back of a Mini-van around housing estates. The beauty of credit drapery, the reason for her taking on the work, was that the Mini-van was a company vehicle which she was entitled to keep out of hours. This was the point. She had her own wheels, which was quite uncommon for a working-class woman in those days. There were many excursions to be had in that Mini-van, and many near misses involving clashes with articulated vehicles, misses made all the nearer, and amplified, by the fact that a Mini-van is a motorized bean-tin which has only the one passenger seat to go around between three children plus all their friends and hangers-on.
We are lucky that we are all still here and alive to tell the tale.