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?).


Valentina said...

Anna, the subject of this post if fabulous. I had read somewhere that scones were originally from Scotland but had not done research to find out exactly what they are all about.You have managed to put it all here. Fascinating.Thanks for once again a lovely read.

I, Like The View said...

how interesting. . .

I'm looking forward to scones part 2 now!

(wish blogger did a scratch 'n' sniff option sometimes)

Jen said...

how intriguing... ive never seen this type of scone. You learn something new everyday.. Thanks!

Jeanne said...

Hi Anna

I think I also did a cursory bit of reading for my post on black treacle scones and discovered that scones are of Scots origin. I love getting into the semantics of what is a scone as opposed to a bannock as opposed to... say, a giant oatcake! I have to say I am totally addicted to oatcakes, so a giant oatcake is my idea of heaven. Something like Pimp My Snack for health foods ;-)

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written up and great fun. By the way, oats were not only the staple food in Scotland but also in Cumbria--where oatbread is (or was) called haverbread, from the norse word for oats--and the North of England. Most of the "traditional" foods of Scotland are in fact equally traditional in these areas too.

Anonymous said...

Which kids are you trying to fool, eh Anna?
This is absolutely one of the best food blogs around - true style - and the recipes work too!
Thanx Anna,
Charliecooks from Africa

AnnaW said...

Thanks Charlie!

I have slowed down a little on the production front recently, but you have inspired me to head back to the oven ;)

Anonymous said...

Hi Anna, I'm actually from the town in Kentucky where the bakery still sells transparent puddings - it's called McGees Bakery in Maysville, Kentucky. No one from outside of my area that I've met seems to have heard of them, so it seems that they are not more widespread after all, though apparently the bakery in my town does ship them to former Maysvillians who've moved elsewhere around the country. Your post was incredible and I'm impressed you were even able to find that out about transparent puddings. Great job.

Susie Wallingford
Maysville KY USA

Anonymous said...

Just ordered a copy of "The Scots Kitchen" for a friend and then found your post - now I'm drooling! A friend's mother of Scottish descent used to make thin, crispy oatcakes with saved bacon fat and a little sugar when I was a young thing (ahem.) I can still taste them. Would also like 'scratch n' sniff option.

Unknown said...

Love your blog! I am American with Scottish ancestry. Your history and editorial comments are great reading. Will continue to read regularly.

Sandra Ivester
Swainsboro,Georgia, USA

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in your material on bannock, and also on scones. I especially am looking for copyright-free photos. If you get this, please reply to LSander153 at

ANNER said...

Hi Anna - Hmmm...Scones orginated in Scotland? I should imagine that in fact they were traditional to many areas of Britain not just north of the border, given their very basic baking needs (on a griddle/girdle or in an oven without a great deal of temperature control). I have noticed that in this period of heightened nationalism, foods are far from exempt items in the attmept to assert difference over similarity. As "Anonymous" points out, much of what is viewed as traditional to Scotland alone is equally so to those counties south of the border - rather as the peoples on both sides of the border have cultural, genetic and language roots in common.
Moreover, as far as I am aware, the traditional "scones" of Devonshire are in fact not known as scones but as Splits and have much more in common with the American biscuit than scones do.

The problem for the English is that as the first industrializing nation their traditional local and regional food habits gradually weakened and altered as a result of the changes to economic, social, cultural, commercial and working conditions wrought by industrialization. These changes to local and regional diets took place over the whole of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries, and they continue today. For many in the late twentieth-early twenty-first centuries it seems impossible that ordinary English people ate Oysters, Eel and Barley bread to name but a very few food items that are either too costly or unappealing to the modern palate. Perhaps the Scots have been able to cling longer to older foodways than have their southern cousins for any number of cultural, social and economic reasons; but, I would argue that claims that food items like scones have an exclusive heritage on one side of the border (a border which shifted and across which the people on both sides also shifted over the many centuries) rather being a tradition that is shared between the English, Scottish and possibly the Welsh has all the flavour of food nationalism.

Unknown said...

A great article thanks! I'm in the south of England and this year we've grown some bere barley and I'm planning on making a bannock on Saturday for our Lughnasa celebration. Thanks for sharing your information!

Mabel said...

Interesting article.
Anner's comment 'food nationalism' is interesting, but I take the opposing view. There can be national and regional foods (as this blog tries to showcase) even in cases where, or if, a food didn't develop within one area, it can be and often has been through history, more used, cooked or eaten, within that region or nation. If that is the case, I believe it is then more than entitled to be termed as especially connected with said region or nation, hence Welsh laverbread, Cornish pasties, Yorkshire pudding, and Scottish scones I feel are all entitled to their designated region or nation.
The other comment of 'The problem for the English is that as the first industrializing nation...' may be true since the Scottish industrialisation was slightly behind that of England and was far more limited in geographic area than the vast areas of 'dark satanic mills' spread thoughout vast areas of England. But I would argue that it was hardly so very far behind since New Lanark was set up in 1785, barely 20 years after the first in England, and though in the 1780's there were only about 20 mills in central Scotland, that number had jumped to about 200 by the 1830's or 40's - and given the vast difference in population size of Scotland to England that was a large number. Also from the mid C18th the famous Carron Iron Works (the largest in Europe) was producing munitions such as the Carronade (used effectively during the American revolutionary war and Napoleonic wars) as well as everyday items and that in turn also led to a plethora of foundries and factories scattered throughout the area in a very short period, all located there to make use of large coal seams and easy to reach shipping ports as well as a coast-to-coast canal route. By 1802 the first ever steam ship, the Charlotte Dundas, was made in Grangemouth and sailed the Forth and Clyde the following year and by 1812 Henry Bell's Comet had started sailing to various coastal ports around Britain.
All the same changes took place in the population there as it did anywhere in England after industrialisation, so I don't feel that a sufficient reason for England having lost some of their regional dishes earlier. A better reason could well be the Scots' nostalgia and nationalistic fervour, which has always been in evidence (just as it is in the average American citizen's breast) and which might not be so strong in the average Englishman's. So the very NATIONALISM which he/she complains of might have been the very thing which helped Scots 'cling to older foodways longer'. And, nationalistic or not, foods always do 'assert difference over similarity' whether region to region, country to country, or religion to religion (or even palate to palate) and they have always done so - but unlike the other poster I don't feel that is necessarily a bad thing. I suppose, being a nationalistic Scot, I could also mention that without many Scottish inventors and engineers (Watt and his steam engine in particular) not much industrialisation might have been possible anywhere, or I could paraphrase that 'the problem for the English is that... they're not Scots!' but that would be too nationalistic even for me :).
The history of any foodstuff is certainly hard to trace, but the first verifiable and written reference to scones was in middle Scots by a Scottish bishop, Gavin Douglas, in his translation of the Aeneid, and given that there are other references to their originally being made with oats and being made on girdles then there is far more evidence of their being Scots in origin than there is for them originating in any other country. And talk about nationalism? you haven't seen anything to compare with regionalism, just look at Cornwall and Devon and their cream and jam scone wars!
Being a Scot, I prefer only butter on scones myself, with salt in my porridge of course. :)
Interesting article. Interesting comments. And a great website Anna, glad you're back.

Maria Jette said...

I'm eating a bannock right now-- cheese bannock recipe from the Arrowhead Mills oatflour bag. Very nice, and made with no leavening at all.

I've made barley bannocks, too, and really like them (or should I say "it"?)-- got interested when singing Beethoven's setting of the folk song, "Bannocks o' Barley Meal," believe it or not, and ended up bringing a bunch of it to the concert. That recipe also called for buttermilk and baking soda, like yours.

While your bannock recipe isn't likely to rise a lot, I'd suggest that you might try it sometime with a fresh new box of baking (bicarbonate of) soda. It had never occurred to me that soda could lose its potency, but it really does! I've experienced dead soda in a recipe. It's so cheap-- write the date on it when you open it, and when you're ready to make something with soda, make sure the box isn't more than about 6 months old, or you may find yourself with a disappointingly flat outcome.

Unknown said...

i've never had traditional irish or scottish scones before, but i think i like these a lot better than the overly-sweetened american scones. thanks for the recipe and the research!

Manfaat dan Khasiat Kombucha Tea said...

Beautifully written up and great fun. By the way, oats were not only the staple food in Scotland but also in Cumbria--where oatbread is (or was) called haverbread, from the norse word for oats--and the North of England. Most of the "traditional" foods of Scotland are in fact equally traditional in these areas too.

Anonymous said...

A girdle is something women wear. A griddle is some you cook on. Sorry I could not help but correct you on this. Otherwise nice and tasty recipe.

Momghoti said...

Ahhh--to the person objecting to 'girdle', before being annoyingly critical you should check your facts--In Scots a a 'girdle' is the term for a flat cooking surface(originally a stone).

I really enjoyed your post- I've been reading the Gil Cunningham Mysteries set in 13th century Scotland, and I think I need to make some bannocks to get into the mood properly!

The World of the Blue Bells Trilogy said...

I look forward to trying this!

Steaphan MacRisnidh said...

Very informative. I'd like to point out the related word to bannock in Scottish Gaelic, and indeed no doubt in Irish Gaelic, which is bonnach, and its diminutive form, bonnag.A bonnach in Gaelic is a round bread or cake, basically it can be used to refer to any unleavened bread or cake-like bread that is round. In Scottish Gaelic communities, these were made with barley and oats, and nowadays also with wheat flour. There is an overlap between food and music traditions between gaelic and non-gaelic speaking Scottish communities, due to proximity and the fact that many non-gaelic scottish communities were once Gaelic-speaking in fairly recent history. I noticed your finished giant oatcake, which looked perfectly made by the way, is round.

Steaphan MacRisnidh said...

Sorry for the double comment, bonn is a coin, or medal. So that's where the connection with roundness comes in.

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