It’s the original fast food
Great Britain isn’t the kind of place you expect to find many culinary surprises. Tradition rules the country’s cuisine with things like Sunday roasts and meat pies. But as is often said, everything old is new again, and during a trip to Tesco, I stumbled upon a product I had never heard of before: Staffordshire Oatcakes. I grabbed a pack and found myself flung down the delicious rabbit hole of a centuries’ old highly regionalized English food that has now become a part of my big British breakfasts, casual handheld lunches and, when I am feeling a bit lazy, even my dinners. And though Americans may not find these particular kinds of oatcakes on store shelves, I encourage everyone to find a way to give these unique multipurpose oat-based items a try.
Not to be confused with Scottish or Irish Oatcakes, which are smaller and more closely resemble a cracker, Staffordshire Oatcakes, which originate from the English county of the same name, are larger and more flexible, occupying a middle ground between a thick crepe and a savory pancake—but one that’s made with ground oats. Some people like to compare oatcakes to a wrap, and indeed, if you’re lucky enough to find them in a grocery store, they’re typically stashed away near the bread. As an American, you could even think of an oatcake as a stodgy English tortilla, fitting right in alongside the rest of the Brits’ heavy cuisine.
Though defining a Staffordshire oatcake might seem confusing, this broad set of descriptors actually speaks to the food’s amazing versatility. In a traditional sense, these oatcakes are often served as part of a savory breakfast, but once fried up, an oatcake is a tasty replacement for a wrap at lunch time or even for making an oat-accentuated take on a quesadilla. In fact, melted cheese is an oatcake’s friend at any meal. More controversially, thanks to the mild natural sweetness inherent in oats, Staffordshire oatcakes can also be effectively dressed up like a crepe or pancake with sweet ingredients like brown sugar, honey, jam, fruit, or even something as intense as Nutella.
“I get feedback off customers who say I’ve had it with ice cream,” said Jeremy Boote, Director of North Staffs Oatcake Bakers, the largest and longest-running producer of Staffordshire oatcakes for the retail market, having opened their doors in 1965. “Generally, most people would eat them as a breakfast thing with cheese and bacon … but some people put curry in them, the same sort of stuff you’d put in wraps basically.”
On an average week, North Staffs bakes between 350,000 and 500,000 oatcakes and sees its busiest weeks during cold weather when demand is about 25 percent higher than other times of year. The majority of those sales, 60 percent, are still regional to the area in and around Staffordshire in England’s West Midlands, but Boote said he believes the market is slowly growing. “There seems to be a resurgence of people trying to make oatcakes as well,” Botte told me.
One of those new oatcake makers is Jason Adams, who runs StaffordshireOatcakes.com and sells the local favorite in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire’s largest city. Despite being just 25 years old, he’s been baking oatcakes for seven years. “I think there’re about 40 oatcake shops left at the moment” in Stoke-on-Trent, he said. “Most of the people making oatcakes are older.” Inspired by trips to his neighborhood oatcake shop when he was a boy, Adams was adamant about keeping the tradition and heritage alive. “It’s something I wanted when I was little,” he said, “and luckily I managed to do it.”
If you want to get a true Staffordshire oatcake experience, you’re best to go to a place like The Station Kitchen where Adams cooks his recipe fresh, serving up oatcakes he describes as “probably more flexible and probably thinner” than anything you’re likely to find in a store. Plus you’re supporting a tradition that, according to the Independent, dates back to at least the 18th century, when oatcakes became the food of choice for workers in the Staffordshire Potteries, the center of the area’s booming ceramics industry. “Oatcakes were the original fast food,” Samuel Muston wrote for the paper. “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.” Though the last of these original hole-in-the-wall oatcake shops closed back in 2012, thankfully, the oatcakes themselves survive.
However, for most Americans, getting your hands on this highly regionalized food (not even everyone in England is familiar with them) can be a bit tricky. Luckily, you can try your own hand at being an amateur oatcake maker: The BBC has an oatcake recipe on their website. And though pre-baked oatcakes don’t travel particularly well, Staffordshire Oatcakes sells oatcake mixes online.
No matter how you go about trying to get your oatcake fix, once you do get your hands on one of these strange edible English circles, don’t be afraid to fill it with plenty of cheese and rashers… or something sweet… or whatever you want really. That’s the beauty of the oatcake: Despite being rooted in local tradition, it’s as culinarily open-minded as you’re willing to be.