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work in progress

Featured in The Observer and The Guardian Online 24 June 2024

My current project is in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent, centre of the Potteries and home to the Staffordshire Oatcake.

The Staffordshire Oatcake is a unique regional food, only found today in and around the Potteries area of North Staffordshire. It is a kind of savoury pancake - not hard like the more familiar Scottish oatcake - and about the size of a small dinner plate. It is traditionally eaten for breakfast, typically with bacon and cheese. Never made at home, it is bought from your local oatcake shop, each of which has its own, closely-guarded recipe. These small shops are almost all family-run, some in the same family for generations. I know of one which has been in the same family since 1934. If a shop is sold, the recipe is part of the deal.

Growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, the oatcake was part of my life, and it was only when I moved away that I realised they were unobtainable outside my home town. Trips home may have been notionally undertaken to  visit relatives and friends, but the purchase of oatcakes to bring home for the freezer was always part of the itinerary. Not the same as fresh, but an adequate substitute when needs must.

Oatcakes are cooked on a griddle, and traditionally hand-poured, but some shops have retro-fitted ingenious machines to pour the mixture, each one crafted to fit the existing griddle. These machines come from a tradition of precision engineering in the Potteries which complimented the pottery, brick-making, steel and mining industries  - a tradition which produced the designer of the Spitfire, Reginald Mitchell.

Oatcakes can be bought plain to use at home, but the griddle allows a means of cooking various fillings from traditional bacon and cheese to black pudding and beans, providing a kind of fast food ideal for sustaining the hard labour of workers in heavy industries.

I have come to realise how extraordinary it is that these shops still exist today, many of them only open Thursday to Sunday. One or two larger-scale enterprises have been started in recent years, but the the small shop owners still dominate. A surprising number of these latter are still in business, and I wonder  for how much longer there will be people still willing to get up in the middle of the night to make their 'mix' for the coming day in the traditional way.

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