EATING FOR BRITAIN: MANNA OF THE FIVE TOWNS
After a stupidly early start on my way up to Lancashire, I found myself becoming a tad peckish around Stoke on Trent.
Pulling my car into the next grim service station, I stabbed my fat man fingers at the unresponsive screen of my Blackberry Storm until I finally managed to type in the words “Staffordshire Oatcakes” and found a link for The Oatcake Kitchen a mere five miles from where I was sitting.
It took five equally frustrating minutes to persuade my Sat-Nav that this was where I actually wanted to go and a further fifteen minutes on the M6, the road to Hell, to get there, but I eventually found myself pulling up outside a small café and bakery a short hop from Stoke City’s gleaming Britannia Stadium.
The café was empty bar for one old dear sipping on a cup of tea and reading the super soar away, and I had soon ordered a couple of oatcakes filled with sausages, bacon and eggs from the young waitress and began to admire tray upon tray of oatcakes packed up ready to be delivered.
A quick question about the origins of oatcakes soon had owner, Chris Bates sitting with me in the small dining room and explaining the history of one of Britain’s truly local dishes. He told me that while, once there was an oatcake bakery on every corner in every neighbourhood in The Potteries, now there are only forty left and he is trying to bring the remaining makers together to protect the tradition.
He started making them a mere ten years ago after buying a small bakery, and more importantly the eighty-five year old recipe that went with it and now makes nearly 6,500 a week for locals and, more recently for homesick “stokies” all over the world who he supplies via the magic to the Internet.
The forty bakeries still manage to churn out 350,000 of the local delicacy a year but nearly every one is sold in Stoke, which means that people outside the region, like me have never had the chance to try the real thing. Chris let me join him in the kitchen where he was cooking up batch after batch with the practised air of someone who gets up at 3am every morning to come to work six days a week and, while it looked easy when he did it, the misshapen results of my own efforts showed that there was more to it than meets the eye.
Like so many “peasant” dishes aimed at providing fuel rather than aesthetic delight, the oatcake is not a pretty thing and its simple ingredients of “three types of flour, oatmeal, a bit of salt and sugar and water” belie the fact that it has great texture and hot off the griddle is as good a vehicle for filling as any namby pamby wrap.
Chris looked aghast when I put my cooking head on and suggested all sorts of “exotic” fillings like smoked salmon and cream cheese, because his favourite and the local favourite is just to have them for breakfast stuffed with cheese, bacon and sausages, enough to provide energy a hard day’s work in the factories of the area if there were any left.
Still, before I left, we made an agreement that I would come back soon and he would let me have a play with his, er griddle. I have a tandoori chicken stuffed oatcake theory I would like to test.
Mind you, as I joined him for breakfast, I could see the attraction of merely eating them as nature intended and, for those of you with a literary bent, the title suggests, local boy Arnold Bennett would have approved.