When researching Cumbrian dishes for the restaurant probably one of the most interesting was the bread course. I discovered that due to Cumbria’s delightfully wet and relatively cool climate the crops that did best were barley and oats. Which due to the low gluten content meant that a proven style of bread really wasn’t an option for bakers. Instead, they had a history of making flat cracker style breads or cakes as they are most commonly known. I did a bit of research and tried several of these recipes eventually settling on an old havercake recipe, however, it wasn’t suitable as an alternative to the bread course, so it became part of the cheese course instead.
As I discovered ‘Haver’ is northern English dialect linked to the old Norse word for oats ‘hafri’, which again highlights the strong Norse influences found in this region and in its food culture. Lancashire, Cumbria, Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Cheshire and numerous other northern counties all have their own variations and names clapbread, havercake, tharve-cakes and the like.
As you can probably imagine historically havercake was a very common and important part of the Cumbrian diet. The original method for baking havercake featured a smooth slab of stone propped a few inches above a smouldering fire known as a ‘bakestone’, ‘backstone’ or even a ‘baxstone’. These stones were usually a form of mudstone, which could only be found and quarried in a few limited areas, many still retain the name today like Backstone Edge near High Cup in the Pennines above Dufton, another is High Bakestones, just outside Ambleside at the head of Scandale Beck.
By the seventeenth century these stones had been replaced by large Iron girdles or plaites as they were also known, though the size of havercakes made it difficult for many farms around Cumbria to change over, especially as many had built in bakestones in the ranges of their kitchens, which were built to ensure that no smoke escaped and to ensure they heated more gently. Dried bracken was normally also used to fuel the process too to allow the cake to dry and firm up without burning.
Making of havercake was a serious business, around Bootle, on Cumbria’s West Coast, there was a lady who used to travel from farm to farm and make it. She would arrive with her own applewood rolling pin and would work from 6am till 7pm for two solid days, her price was 1s. 6d. a day with a glass of gin!
During the process a boy would be there on hand to feed the bracken into the fire beneath the bakestone, whilst another member of the team mixed the dough using a tub reserved just for that purpose, and a quick fingered kitchen maid would oversee the baking process.
With these basic tasks covered, it was the lady’s job to concentrate on the skilful operation of rolling the dough! The dough, known as a ‘maud’ was rolled out on a board covered in fine oatmeal using her trusty the applewood rolling pin. Her real skill would come in when the dough was tossed over like a pancake, the surplus oatmeal was brushed off using a goose wing before being slid onto the bakestone and baked until completely dry. After which they were then stored in a wicker basket until the 20 stone or 280lb batch was complete, after which it was the stored in a meal ark until needed.
The reason that my recipe is for a haverbread as opposed to a ‘cake’ is because of some additional ingredients, specifically bicarbonate of soda, butter and salt, whereas the original recipes just use oatmeal and water. Although that doesn’t alter the fact that to this day it’s still a messy job! Which is why we share the job of making it around the kitchen at the Old Stamp House, though unfortunate kitchen assistant Aaron has the job of mixing the batch and rolling it out, before passing it to Will to cook, which I guess means that Will is the quick fingered kitchen maid!?
6oz fine or medium oatmeal A pinch each of salt and bicarbonate of soda 2oz flour Boiling water One tablespoon melted butter or dripping
Method: Mix together the dry ingredients and add fat with enough boiling water to make a pliable dough.
Knead well and roll out thinly.
Bake until brown and crisp, about 25 minutes at 350°F, 180°C or gas mark 4
Serve with cheese and preserves.