With a last-minute invite from the lovely Maria Thomas (friend to the blog and talented actress and producer), the Leading Man and I made it out to the wilds of Crouch End last Tuesday for a trip to the movies. The Greenhorn Film Festival, supporting new and emerging film-makers, held its Official Selection Night at the Arthouse Cinema, and we were treated to an evening of cracking shorts.
With patron Mike Leigh in attendance, the programme included Ed Chappell's prize-winning documentary Sandyman, a portrait of a sand artist who scribes mandala-like artworks into a Devon beach. Personal favourites of mine were Christian Schleffer's The Dewberry Empire, a funny and macabre animation about the often cruel world of children's game play, and Chris Lee and Paul Storrie's The Hedgehog, an exploration of games culture with a brutal twist.
But I'm not really here to talk about films today. See, one of the shorts was a smart little faux-newsreel piece on a culinary passion of mine. The film was George Smith's The Ultimate Guide To The Oatcake. And frankly, I'm shocked that this brilliant example of British local grub can be treated as a curiosity.
The oatcake is not, as the name might suggest, a type of flapjack or cereal bar. It certainly isn't a cake. It's more of a savoury pancake, with a denser, more robust structure that's somehow also airy and easy to digest. Think of it as a cross between a tortilla and a chapati. In fact, one long-standing theory for the origin of the oatcake has soldiers coming back from duty in India at the height of the British Empire and demanding their wives make the delicious savoury pancakes to which they had become addicted. Using local ingredients including oats, the result, although not authentic (we'd have to wait another hundred years for the real deal to make its way over from the sub-continent) were entirely delicious.
The oatcake is a highly versatile foodstuff, a benefit of its simplicity. A fantastic addition to a cooked breakfast, it's also great stuffed with cheese and ham as a lunch-time treat. Flavoursome and filling, I've even used oatcakes in a kind of cannelloni, rolling a thick ragu in them, covering with cheese and baking until everything bubbles. Now that, my hungry Readership, is a winter warmer.
The one problem with the oatcake is that of supply. Apart from aficionados like TLC and I, the oatcake is barely known outside of its native Staffordshire. Smith, in his pert little doco, notes that the shops that were once on every street corner in places like Stoke are fading away. The exclusivity of the dish, the fact that it's tricky to get outside The Potteries, has contributed to an obscurity that means that fewer and fewer people even know about them. Their short shelf life means that supermarkets are leery to stock them. The worry is that this most delicious of local dishes is in danger of becoming a culinary footnote.
Fortunately, thanks to the internet, it's easier than ever to buy them in vacuum packs from suppliers like High Lane or Poveys. You can even get a pancake-like mix to which you simply add water and a little fat. Or you could, you know, try to make them yourself. The batter is a mix of fresh yeast, sugar, fine oatmeal, plain flour and water, a leavened mix that needs time to rise and develop the bubbly texture that makes the oatcake so delicious.
Now, I've never tried this. I prefer the illicit thrill of knowing that there's a pack on its way down from my West Midlands contacts. There's an almost druggy tingle to the process. Crack the pack, hot pan, two minutes a side and hot damn, there's breakfast. There's nothing better with bacon and sausage, or simply warm with butter. But however you eat it, the oatcake is a must-try. It's even, with the low GI from the oats, good for you. Not if you fry it in lard, obviously. Find a balance. But do, please, find a pack of oatcakes. Your breakfasts will never be the same.