Friday, June 09, 2006
Oatmeal Bannock (Scones Part 1)
During the course of researching the background to Scotch pancakes, I was surprised to learn that scones are of Scottish invention. I had always assumed that they originated in the South-West of England, hence the popularity of Cornish and Devonshire cream teas, where freshly baked scones are served with lashings of locally produced clotted cream and home-made jams. I was wrong.
In Scotland the girdle has been an essential piece of cooking equipment right through to the late 20th century at least. When English supermarket chains extended into Scotland, they were forced to install girdles in-store so as to be able to provide the Scots with familiar and favoured products (Mason & Brown). This reliance on the girdle, particularly in rural areas, meant that very particular types of food developed north of the border. Breads, for example, were baked on the girdle rather than baked in the oven; the girdle also produced pancakes, oatcakes, thin crumpets, potato and oatmeal scones. The girdle-cooked breads were unleavened, circular in form, and the size of a dinner plate. These loaves were made from barley flour or oatmeal, and were known as bannocks. Over time bannocks began to be made with wheat flour, yeast and were enriched with butter and dried fruit - i.e. the Selkirk Bannock. In present times the name bannock is applied more generally to any baked item of a similar size and shape to the original bannock loaf, and can also be used as a term for a large circular scone which is scored into sections.
So, a bannock can also be a scone. What is a scone? Well, a scone is made from baked dough and a food of many guises - the dough can be sweetened or left plain; the baking can be done on the girdle, or in the oven; the dough can be leavened or chemically raised, or left alone; may be made from various flour types, or have potatoes as a base; oven-baked scones tend to be made of rolled dough, cut into smaller pieces (round or square), whereas girdle-caked scones tend to be left as a large disc. Recipes for scones therefore are very various!
I want to return to oven-baked scones in a future post (and will journey southwards to do so). For this posting I want to girdle-cook an early crossover between what was eaten in Scotland as a bread, and what became more familiar as a scone. For my recipe I used F. Marian McNeil's book 'The Scots Kitchen'. Her recipes for girdle-baked scones, bannocks and pancakes are highly praised in Elizabeth David's 'English Bread and Yeast Cookery'. David advises the baker to make use of McNeil's recipes; she says, 'Her oatcakes and scones have nothing of the tea shop and the tourist board about them. They are the real thing'. Well, Mrs D.'s is a voice to be listened to, so off to the bookshelf I went. McNeill's book is seen as the seminal work on traditional Scottish foods. It was compiled in the 1920s, and is clearly written by an experienced cook. Exact quantities are not always given, and cooking instructions are not of Delia et. al. clarity. McNeill clearly writes for the practised cook, and the baker who has a good feel for the materials she or he is working with. Intimidated, moi?
Scotland had as its staple cereal crops, barley firstly, and then oats. Wheat was difficult to grow and so wheat flour was historically used much less frequently that barleymeal or oatmeal (meal is a less finely ground product than flour). Obviously today wheat flour is widely available in Scotland, but it is still an imported product, and to get a more authentic flavour to your Scottish baking one should really use barley or oats. As barleymeal is hard to come by, I bought some fine oatmeal and used this in McNeil's recipe for Bere or Barley Bannocks, replacing the beremeal/barley with the oat equivalent. She gives two methods, one 'old' and one 'modern'. The old method has no rising agent, uses butter and sweet milk rather than buttermilk. The modern method has no fat added, uses bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk. It is this presence of a chemical rising agent is that makes the recipe a step toward that of the scone. I halved the quantities of ingredients suggested by McNeill.
225g fine oatmeal
55g plain flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1/4 pint of buttermilk (in the recipe this measurement was given in teacupfuls, but this volume seemed to give a good consistency to the mixture)
1. Preheat your girdle. It is hot enough to cook on when flour sprinkled on it takes a few seconds to brown.
2. Put the oatmeal, flour and salt into a large bowl and mix well.
3. Put the buttermilk into a small bowl, add the teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and mix briskly. McNeill writes that it will fizz up, but mine didn't.
4. Add the buttermilk mixture to the dry ingredients and bring together into a soft dough. Be careful not to overwork the mixture. The key thing is to work quickly as the bicarbonate of soda will be kicked into action by the buttermilk.
5. Roll mixture out on a lightly floured surface, to a depth of about 1/2 inch. Cut into a round (cut around a suitable size plate).
6. Dust girdle with a small amount of flour and put on the round of dough to cook. Turn the bannock over when the underside starts to brown.
I wasn't sure what to expect from the appearance of my bannock. It only swelled the smallest of amounts during cooking. I wasn't sure whether it should rise more or not, bannocks were originally unleavened breads after all; but I did think that the point of using the bicarbonate of soda was to get a rise, even if this were only very slight. Maybe I needed a bit more bicarbonate of soda; or maybe the oatmeal is too sturdy to get much rise from? (Update - I have since learnt that oatmeal has a very low gluten content so will never make a dough with 'lift'. Flat bread/scones are what you get!)
In the end I decided that my oatmeal bannock was not far removed from a giant oatcake. The oatcake recipe that McNeil gives a few pages after her instructions for bannock, comprises of oatmeal, a pinch of salt and a pinch of bicarbonate of soda, mixed with a bit of fat and hot water. The oatcakes are rolled out thinly and then cooked on the girdle. The bannock is moister and softer than these oatcakes would be, but is closer in substance to them than the savoury scone I had imagined it would appear to resemble. It was very dense and a little chewy. I avoided drinking too much water after sampling in case my stomach swelled like a haggis.
Flavour-wise the bannock was fairly bland. I do like oats, so for me this wasn't a problem, but I did find that a slice was best consumed with a lick of butter and a drizzle of honey (making up for the lack of fat and sugar in the recipe perhaps). It would be a good base to a fried feast of bacon, mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes etc., as the sturdiness and blandness of the bannock would soak up the oil and the flavours. This bannock is definitely a food for sending Scots soldiers on long marches, or to give a hill farmer sturdy legs during long days on the mountains; it would be wasted on pillows of golden cream and sweet summer fruits. Perhaps before moving out to the West Country I need to try one more of McNeil's girdle recipes, to see if I can find one that forms a closer link between the scones of Scotland and the scones of the South-West of England?
By coincidence, today (9th June) is St. Columba's Day (patron saint of shepherds). In rural Scotland this was traditionally marked by the baking of an oatmeal, barleymeal or rye bannock - one of the few foodstuffs that Columba allowed himself in his monastry on the island of Iona. The bannock would contain a coin and was shared between the children of the household. Whoever had the slice of bannock with the coin 'won' the job of looking after the new lambs for the next year (a prize coveted by children, for it meant that they were being granted great responsibility - better than an iPod, eh kids?).