You found Dawson’s oatcake works in a ramshackle Victorian building at Heeley Green, Sheffield. It was a small business run by two elderly brothers who turned vats of bubbling batter into tea plate-sized pancakes full of holes.
I was fascinated how they made them, at a long heated metal hotplate. Overhead, on rails, was a hopper filled with batter and one of the brothers would steadily move it along. As it did so, the hopper dropped measured splodges of batter in two or three rows onto the table. They spilled into more or less regular circles and began cooking.
No sooner had he reached the end of the counter than the oatcake maker retraced his steps and began flipping the oatcakes over with a paint scraper. By the time he had finished the first were cooked on both sides, ready to be cooled, stacked and packed for sale in local shops.
Oatcakes must have been in the Dawson family for several generations. Older Sheffield folk remember a Mr Dawson touring the streets on a bicycle selling them from his pannier.
A Sheffield, or Derbyshire, oatcake is smaller than the Staffordshire version and possibly a little thicker, made with a 50-50 mix of plain white flour and oatmeal. It is not to be confused with the Scottish oatcake which is a small crisp biscuit with cheese.
It must be 20 years since I visited Dawson’s and it closed down, unnoticed, a few years ago. Another little bit of Sheffield’s own native gastronomy disappeared although one or two people still make them on an artisan basis for local sale.
Sadly, few local cafes and restaurants have them on the menu although you can find them at the Old Eyre Arms on the B6001 at Hassop, filled with Stilton and mushrooms (www.eyrearms.co.uk)
It depends on your fancy how you eat them. I cut them into quarters and fry them with Sunday breakfast but they are also great as a wrap. You can roll them around a rasher of bacon or spread them with butter and jam.
It was when my local bakers shop stopped selling them that I looked around for a recipe. The internet is a wonderful thing. The recipe I use is below. It makes about a dozen oatcakes and I usually freeze half. For the oatmeal I whizz porridge oats in a blender.
120g plain or wholemeal flour
1 tsp salt
7g dried yeast
500ml warm milk and water mix (proportion up to you)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp oil (optional)
Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk and water
Mix flours and salt, then stir in yeasty liquid to form a smooth batter. Add oil if using. Cover the bowl and leave in a warm place until frothy, a couple of hours, but overnight seems to improve the taste
When ready to cook, you will need to thin the batter with 50ml more milk or water and then keep adjusting until you get the right consistency, as for pancakes
Heat a small frying pan and wipe with lard or oil. Reduce to medium heat. Pour half a ladleful of batter into the pan, swirl and cook gently. Small holes will appear. Wait until the oatcake ‘dries’ (about a couple of minutes) before flipping with a spatula and cooking for a minute or so more. Repeat until the batter is used up.
A few notes: As with pancakes your first is your worst but your technique quickly improves! I have included the oil in the mix but don’t think it is essential. I have forgotten it and get, I think, a better result. I never have as many holes in my oatcake as ones I see in the shops. The secret seems to be to have your pan as hot as possible, the batter thin and drop rather than pour it into the pan.