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 Scots, too.)
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 Iron Age.
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.