Border bannocks - The Scottish flatbread
The bannock wasn’t always just a tea-time treat
From a flatbread that was an everyday staple, the traditional Border bannock changed its character over the years. The rich cakes that bear the name ‘bannock’ owe little to their ancestry but their round shape.
When Burns talked of southern Scotland as ‘land o’ cakes’ he wasn’t referring to anything sweet. The ‘cakes’ of our ancestors were oatcakes, still very familiar, and barley bannocks, which are not. Wheat bread, although aspired to, was very uncommon. Ordinary households did not have ovens and baked on an iron girdle hung over the fire right into the 19th century. This replaced a bakestone placed on the embers, which had been the method of making bread since prehistoric times. Wheat was seldom grown in the Borders until late in the 18th century, as oats and barley were more reliable crops.
It’s a shame barley bannocks have disappeared, as they are delicious. Try the ‘old method’ for cooking them, given by F. Marian McNeill in The Scot’s Kitchen. It relies on heating up milk with a knob of butter and some salt, and adding the barley meal (flour) when it is hot. This swells the meal and makes a pliable dough. If you don’t have a girdle, the bannock can be cooked on a heavy frying pan (without oil). It should be crisp on the outside and just slightly moist within. Eat it hot. William and Dorothy Wordsworth, travelling through the Borders in 1803, disliked thick barley bannocks. But when they tried them hot, thin and crispy, they pronounced them excellent. Think of bannocks as a Scottish version of a chapatti, but made entirely with local ingredients and much more tasty.
As for the descendants of the bannock, the Selkirk bannock is rightly acclaimed. It was first baked around 1859 in Hawick, by Robbie Douglas, who then sold them in Selkirk. Selkirk bakers soon latched on to the recipe, which followed in the tradition of embellishing the plain bannock with sugar, spices, dried fruit and yeast for festive occasions. The ‘cryin’ bannock, for instance, was mixed with cream and dried fruit to celebrate the birth of a baby. After Queen Victoria ate Selkirk bannock at Abbotsford in 1867, demand for these succulent, sultana-stuffed fruit breads soared. That’s why we still have them today, whether made by Alex Dalgetty & Sons of Gala, who claim a link with the original baker, or by many other craft bakers in the Borders. The Yetholm bannock is a recipe to try at home. You can find it on the internet and will be surprised at how much butter and syrup, eggs, almonds and ginger it demands.