For much of the holiday period, most of my mornings were spent in the same uncomfortable manner: shoulders curled in, head down, staring at a grill pan. The arc of my shoulders, I feel, was testament to the level of concentration I was employing. This was delicate work.
Cooking a Staffordshire oatcake for breakfast is one of life's pleasures, but as with other pleasures, to get the most out of it, you need to think about it. And I was doing just that because, having nearly finished cooking the bacon, I needed to put my brace of floppy, savoury oatmeal pancakes – quite different from those dry Scottish biscuits that have pinched their name – beneath the grill.
The thing is, though, that once you add the payload of cheddar cheese to the oatcake and put it to the heat, it is a race against time. You need to melt the cheese up to the point when it becomes molten and starts to turn a turkey bronze, but before – and this is vital – the oatcake becomes crisp and hard, because a crisp oatcake will not roll into a cylinder and, like the collapsed soufflé, a non-rolling oatcake is fit only for the dog.
I know this because I have known oatcakes from young. They are the food of my county. They occupy a similar position in my universe to the old school pals who never left my village and who I only now see when I am home.
I find it surprising, then, that Esquire magazine – that fine and fastidious publication – has declared the oatcake shop from which my family buys theirs – High Lane Oatcakes, High Lane, Stoke-on-Trent – as the eighth best place in the kingdom to have breakfast. I thought it was a secret confined to those with an ST postcode.
Usually, the only people you ever find eating oatcakes are the ones with family there or those who have lived there themselves, because silly, short-sighted supermarkets tend to spurn the dish that has sent workers in the potteries to work since the 18th century, because they have a shelf-life of only 3-4 days. More fool them.
Oatcakes were the original fast food. Small brick bakehouses were built onto the front of houses in the 19th and early 20th century. Oatcakes were cooked inside and then dispensed through a sliding window. Thirty or 40 years ago, these "holes in the wall" fed the armies of workers heading to the potteries, mining and steelworks.
The oatcakes, sometimes with four or five fillings, were the 1500-calorie breakfasts for people with 1500-calorie mornings.
As far back as 1830, the scientist Sir Humphrey Davy noted that the miners of Derbyshire preferred oatcakes to "wheaten bread... finding that this kind of nourishment enables them to support their strength and perform their labour better".
Most of that heavy industry has gone now, but the oatcake still has a tight grip on the county's breakfast and the owners of High Lane Oatcakes have to rise early to meet demand. A day there begins with the mixing of the batter at 4am and then the cooking starts at 5.30am. In a day, they sell around 1,000 oatcakes, both pre-filled, and also plain, to take home. Ask them what their recipe is, though, and you will meet a Cosa Nostra-like wall of silence.
You will find all sorts of recipes for them online, but I can tell you: I have tried them all and have always been left wanting.
If you really want to eat these delicacies, you must do as I do and as Esquire advises, and visit High Lane Oatcakes.
You may end up with aching shoulders, but you'll have a damn fine breakfast.Reuse content