Why Scottish oats and bread are a cut above

The essential ingredient in porridge, crowdie, skirlie and haggis

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Why Scottish oats and bread are a cut above

Fife has a long history of growing oats, and its bakers make the most of it. Robin Wu found out why Fife’s oatcakes are a cut above

Oats thrive in a cold, damp climate and so it comes as no surprise that they have long been a staple food in Fife, and Scotland in general. Indeed oats, inseparably entwined with Scotland’s culinary heritage, were, and still are, held in high esteem.

Whether it’s porridge, crowdie, skirlie, or haggis; mixed with blood and spices in puddings, used as a coating for herring or, of course, making oatcakes, many traditional recipes involve the humble oat. Scottish writer and culinary historian F Marian McNeill tells us that: ‘Oatcakes are especially good with herrings, sardines, cheese, curds, buttermilk, broth and kail; or spread with butter and marmalade to complete the breakfast.’

Taste aside, the sustaining and health-giving properties of oats and oatcakes are also now extolled. Their high content of complex carbohydrate and soluble fibre provide a prolonged energy release – properties no doubt valued by the Scottish foot-soldiers of the past who would carry them in their knapsacks.

They are also rich in folic acid and other vitamins and minerals, including zinc and thiamine. Perhaps all this, in tandem with the current interest in rediscovering the local and regional, contributes to their increasing popularity.

Adamson’s Bakery of Pittenweem has been baking their renowned oatcakes since 1887. In 1935, they moved into the premises which they still occupy today, although the old front shop is now gone and the focus has shifted from general baking to making only the Pittenweem oatcakes. These are supplied to cheese shops (such as Iain Mellis in Edinburgh and Glasgow and Neal’s Yard Dairy in London) as well as specialist food shops around the UK.

The recipe was created by the late Ken Adamson’s grandmother Agnes and it remains unchanged to this day. The simple and few ingredients include stone ground oatmeal, wheat flour from the local Hutchinson’s mill, shortening (non-hydrogenated), baking powder and seasonings. The dough is hand-kneaded in a dusting of oats then rolled out with a bakers pin and cut into its distinctive triangles. These are baked in traditional ovens, with stone floors, which date back to the 1930s. The resulting oatcakes are thick, crumbly and a little sweet with a rustic, hand-made feel: a great partner for cheeses, honey or just butter.

Adamson’s are not the only ones making hand-made oatcakes with a distinctive Fife character; relative newcomer, the Your Piece Baking Company is also offering a range of oatcakes and other oat-related baking. Owner Dan Connelly has worked with traditional Fife bakers Fisher & Donaldson to create what could be considered to be a more contemporary range of biscuits, albeit one that is still rooted firmly in its local baking heritage.

There is an emphasis on hand-making, using locally grown Fife oats, and the distinctive triangular ‘Fife Cut’. Alongside traditional oatcakes, they also offer a ‘porridge oatcake’ using rolled oats, adding a juiciness and fruity flavour to the final product. Oatmeal shortbread is another of Connelly’s oat-based products, with a quantity of oatmeal mixed into the traditional flour, sugar and butter mixture.

Not just any old iron

Scottish cooking owes a big thank you to the Fife town of Culross on the Forth. The flat, iron girdle (Scots for ‘griddle’) pans forged here were one of the two essential cooking implements (the other being the stock pot) for classic Scots baking recipes. In fact, thanks to a Royal Charter from King James IV in 1599, Culross had the monopoly on production for the whole country. The blacksmiths of Culross, fuelled by local coal, turned out vast number of girdle pans for Scots to cook their bannocks, scones and oatcakes. So widespread was the Culross pan that many a parent warned their offspring that ‘I’ll gar yer lugs ring like a Culross girdle’. (John Cooke)

Rediscovering real bread

Very little artisan, additive-free bread is made in Fife, a fact that prompted husband and wife team Matthew Roberts and Zillah Scott to establish the Steamie Bakehouse in Dunfermline in 2009. Still very much a DIY, experimental operation based in a shed in their garden, they are in the process of converting what used to be a communal ‘steamie’ wash-house for their tenement building into an industrial baking space. Once this is completed there might be scope for distribution beyond the local Reuben’s Deli, but for now people outside the local area can take inspiration from the recipes posted on their website and blog.

Directly encouraging a local community relationship to food, Steamie has set up a Bread Club in collaboration with the Fife Diet initiative, with a large order of loaves being delivered weekly to one address in Burntisland and collected from there by participating neighbours and friends.

Also recently under way in Fife is another bread club scheme set up by Cupar-based bakers Fisher & Donaldson to encourage people to try various styles of bread, including dark German ryes, traditional sour doughs and flavoured breads.

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