Oatcakes

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.

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12 Responses to Oatcakes

  1. Hi,
    There’s many varied recipes for oatcakes, but here’s a link for a very common one…

    http://www.allotment.org.uk/recipe/77/recipe-for-north-staffordshire-oatcake/

    Serenity.

  2. OK I’m drooling.

    Lisa (Greyhound Gap) took me for my very first oatcakes when I came up to Stoke in February. I had the full English breakfast version – it was sublime.

  3. calvininjax says:

    I am overcome by a wave of nostalgia.

    My favourite was oatcakes with Lyle’s Golden Syrup, which ran through the small holes.

    My father sold oatcakes in his shop. His supplier, I cannot for the life of me remember the name, was located on London Road, Stoke. As a boy, I recall watching them being made and then placed on the racks to cool off.

    I was also fortunate to witness behind the scenes at Marsh’s bakery, also on London Road, Stoke, not far from The Villas. The baker was called Arthur. I would be surprised if he is still alive. They used to produce three-foot long Swiss Rolls, which my father would sell by weight. And their Maid of Honour cakes were something I would die for. I bet it is getting on for 30 years since I last ate a Maid of Honour.

    Damn you, Stephen! I shall now probably spend the rest of the day wandering down Memory Lane. 🙂

  4. diane says:

    i remember that mini van well it has recently appeared in my MA workings….i will email you my lovely drawing of it….yes indeed lucky to be alive us lot it was the oatcakes that saved us me thinks!!!!! xxxxxxxxxxxx

  5. OS. says:

    On the strength of this piece of literature?, I shall have for my tea [not to be mistaken for dinner which is served at midday for those of humble origin], bacon, sausages, beans, fried egg and oatcakes, ‘O dainty Ducke. It will make a change from my Tesco Value range of delicacies. BTW, pig pudding is best eaten fried with sunday brekfast and not, as you say, on a bloody stick like a cocktail. That came about with the advent of middle class gayers like yourself, ‘O dainty Ducke.

    Another BTW, ‘O dainty Ducke, how’s my manuscript coming on? 😉

    M. le etc…

  6. calvininjax says:

    The oatcake shop on London Road, Stoke, was run by Jim Ellis. I told you I would spend the day wandering down Memory Lane.

    Glad to see the traditional dinner/tea distinction is still being upheld, OS. It was, of course, Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup on oatcakes that I used to have for my tea.

    Another favourite tea was banana sandwiches, made with unsliced Hovis bread from Marsh’s bakery. I always used to add a squeeze of lemon to the slices of banana before sprinkling with sugar. Pleasures were simple in those bygone days.

    Beef dripping on Hovis toast was another tea-time delight. I bet that gets the thumbs down from the BMA these days, with all that fat and then the salt to flavour.

  7. Stephen Foster says:

    Swiss roll by weight. That is genius.

    And syrup running through the holes is tit-for-tat nostalgia too… 🙂

    I will be letting you know about your genius m/s in due course OS. A couple of weeks I’d say, at my remedial reading speed.

    Auntie Di’s remembered pictures of the Mini van to be appearing tomorrow. Very good they are as well, ‘MA’ Sis. * Low bow*

  8. markelt says:

    I think you’ll find pigs pudding is just as nice in a risotto, or fried with some apples or just any way. I have a pigs pudding and bacon bap off a van on my way into work some days when I can’t face any more yoghurt.

    I know it’s easy to say, but the oatcakes you get in a lot of supermarkets, made in Chesterton, are an abomination. When I lived in the Foley in Fenton, they made oatcakes the right way at the shop of the end of our road, in front of you and bung on any topping you like.

  9. boudin rouge says:

    I would like to know if they make pikelets with black pudding in the mix instead of currants.

  10. AndyP says:

    This weekend I’ve been back to ST5 to see the parents, and one of my activities was “interviewing” the Owd Man for the book I intend to write about him. Any road part of his reminiscing about his youth led on to the subject of shops in the street he grew up in and in particular his nextdoor neighbours. The Cheethams lived in a terraced house at 39 Oxford Road, Basford, and during the week Jack Cheetham had a window cleaning business which stretched as far as Brownhills near Tunstall. He had no vehicle but pushed his ladders on a cart, and his wife walked out to meet him with his snappin’ at dinner time. But on Saturdays and Sundays the Cheethams opened their front room to the public and cooked oatcakes on two stoves, a small one and a larger one. Dad recalls as a lad in the early 1950s watching Jack Cheetham make the oatcakes mixing the batter in an old tin bath! On a Sunday the queue of local folk stretched out of the door and up the road to the enclosed entry to the back yards. (From memory about 3 or 4 houses up). Being neighbours Dad’s family used to get a few oatcakes, presumably for nowt, but his mother put paid to that by telling the Cheethams she thought they put “too much bicarb in it”! So that was the end of that, and the eggs they had from the Cheethams’ hens in the garden!

  11. kev says:

    Hi calvininjax ,
    Just a small point but its Ray Ellis, not Jim, and he works for me at London Road Oatcakes in Stoke.
    I dragged him out of retirement about 6 months ago, he’s a third generation oatcake baker and what this guy doesnt know about ‘The Mix’ probably isnt worth knowing, his familly have won the Sentinel gold ribbon award for oatcakes.

  12. calvininjax says:

    Kev,

    Thanks for the correction and my apologies to Ray. I thought I did well to remember that his last name was Ellis. Glad to hear he is still alive and putting his expertise to good use, delighting the tastebuds of Potteries folk.

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