Gaelic and Celtic Customs
from the Hebrides and Beyond
Fada's Farsaing (Far and Wide) is a series of articles by Liam O Caiside in English but with Gaelic words and phrases interwoven in the text. The articles describe a wide range of Gaelic and Celtic customs. These pages were originally published in the "Scottish Radiance" e-magazine and have been reproduced here with the kind permission of the Scottish Radiance editor, Sharma Krauskopf.
An oatcake may take a number of different forms. It can be an oven-baked, manufactured biscuit containing a proportion of wheat flour. Or it can be a griddle-baked version, containing no flour, which takes on a life of its own as a thin curling triangle as it dries out. A hybrid of this is the toasted oatcake, which has not only been dried-out on a griddle, but also gently toasted before a live fire, or other source of heat, to sharpen up the oatmeal flavour and increase crispness. They are rarely found for sale commercially, though farmer's wives who bake for rural shows and Highland games sometimes produce a batch for sale. Wafer-thin, griddle-curled, dusky-coloured, crunchy-textured, nutty-flavoured - they are a distinctive product of the home-baker's art. A method which requires both skill and care, which accounts for their rarity.
'Toast very slowly at a distance from the fire,' says an old recipe, 'first on one side and then the other, on a toaster of open bars that lets the moisture escape.'
Lacking both the open fire and the old-fashioned oatcake toaster with the open bars, a compromise is to cook them first on the griddle, and finish them with a toasting under a very low grill. To get a curl on the oatcake it's necessary to cut them into triangular farls.
Oatcakes - Toasted
125g (4oz) medium or fine oatmeal
1 tablespoon melted fat, preferably bacon fat
1-2 tablespoons boiling water
pinch of salt
To mix and shape: Add the fat to the meal and mix through. Sprinkle over the boiling water and bring together into a soft, firm ball. The rolling out must be done quickly before the mixture cools, when it will be much more difficult to roll. Dust the work surface with oatmeal and roll out with a rolling pin, pinching the edges to stop them cracking, to a circle about 1/5in (1/2cm) thick. Leave whole or cut into four, six or eight triangles. They can be left to dry out for an hour or longer if wished. This helps them to curl.
Heating the griddle: Heat up slowly to a moderate heat. Test by holding your hand just above the surface when it should feel pleasantly, but not fiercely, hot. Firing the oatcakes: Put on the griddle and leave until they have dried out and started to curl. If they are too thick they will not curl. Remove and toast in the oven (gas mark 4/180C/350F) for 10-15 minutes, or toast under a cool grill, or in front of the fire, or in a toaster. Cool on a rack and store in an airtight tin between layers of greaseproof paper. Toast again before use.
Nineteenth and Twentieth Century
Oatcakes - Baked in the Oven
250g (8oz) medium oatmeal
125g (4oz) pinhead oatmeal
125g (4oz) wheaten flour
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon sugar
50g (4oz) butter, dripping or lard, or a mixture
4 tablespoons boiling water
METHOD You will need two 19 x 28cm (71/2 x 11in) baking tins or two 20cm (8in) round sandwich tins - greased and floured. Preheat oven to gas mark 4/180C/350F.
Put the oatmeal, flour, salt and sugar into a bowl. Melt the fat in the water and add. Mix to a fairly stiff dough. Divide between tins. Level with a spatula. Dust with oatmeal. Cut into squares or triangles. Bake for 40 minutes.
Oatcakes - From the Supermarket...
METHODWhile there are still many people who prefer to cook their own oatcakes, those who have busy lives these days just have to make do with factory made products taken from the supermarket shelves though some of these are very good! The ones pictured here are, for example, made in the Orkneys, in the far north of Scotland!
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