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Flat or Flatter Breads

Flat or flatter breads

Most of us today have an image of bread as being risen, made in a metal tin, usually rectangular with a domed top and baked in an oven. The common spectre of industrial bread is similar if less aesthetic, but entrenched as the dominant image.


Commonly bread is sliced, made into sandwiches for example and we enjoy a “slice”. As a youth I was troubled by the last supper, as the disciples broke the bread and shared it. I couldn’t understand “breaking” the soft doughy stuff from which I secretly tore the inside, whilst hiding in the verandah ... how was it “broken”?...this was my only reference, so I saw Christ with the same bread as we had ... the medieval paintings were of no help either as these depicted some flattish, usually round-ish object which simply did not look like bread.

A worldwide phenomenon

Of course the last supper was with Pita breads, totally unknown outside the “middle east” until the movements of population which followed World War 2. The subsequent globalisation of all things has now made us familiar with khobz and lavash and pita and focaccia, nicely exotic, but there is a “before-time” which featured “flat” breads in the form of bannock and haver cakes and oatcakes and barley breads ... flat breads which were the commonest form of bread and widely eaten in the British Isles until the 19th century when industrialisation virtually eliminated the local and regional breads made from the old grains. Wheat replaced them all and the new provenance the factory.

British flatbreads

Britain has a wealth of panary history of equal significance to the more exotic locations, its just that we don’t really care for it. A bannock is unlikely to be served in the post-modern groovy eatery, which will however serve variants of French and Italian regional breads. What is despicable about the humble bannock?...familiarity has bred contempt and the bannock is somehow tiresome and boring as we long for the promises of more exotic climes and cuisines.

\"OatenThe traditional flatbreads of the UK, many and varied from region to region, are a treasure trove really, and what makes them potentially more attractive is their inherent wholesomeness and the possibility of expanding the old range of fillings/toppings to include the desirously foreign, all underscored by the cultural and economic necessity of re-inventing “local”.

Best with ...

The most common partner to the bannocky breads seems to have been good butter and cheese, more appropriate for a hard-working population, but also probably not groovy enough for us today…nevertheless very good… the “local cheese” becomes more interesting as excellent rural cheeses become more available again today to relieve the tyranny of cheddar and give the traditional dough-stuffs a more authentic slant.

The soft ripened sheep’s and goats’ cheeses are an example, (Wigmore and Flower Marie being excellent) elevating the bannocky-breads to new levels, especially when accompanied by ripe tomatoes , white anchovies and avocado, hardly traditional, but “now” and delicious, enabling the re-birth of traditional flatbreads without any cringe about monotony or familiarity.

Take a journey

We would like to begin a journey through some of the worlds flatbreads. This is ahead of a launch of a new range of specially milled Atta which are designed for Indian style flat-breads, but which can also be used for many of the regional breads of the “middle east” and the sub continent.

When these new flours are available we will let you know if you have registered in our member\'s area for our newsletter.

Starting in Britain

But I thought it best to start the journey into flatbread heaven from Home and celebrate what we have.

\"OatenThe haver or oatcake came in many forms, varying regionally. Aside from the idiosyncratic shapes, there are two major distinguishing factors. This is leavening. The oatcakes were either leavened with an overnight spontaneous fermentation, a sourdough, less commonly with ale yeast, or were not leavened at all.

The texture of the batter decreed whether the result was lacy and holey from the fermentation, as in pikelets and crumpets and oatcakes, or more solid such as the bannock or as evolved with the muffin and scones. A soft or wetter texture gives the holey crumpet, pikelet or soft oatcake. A firmer unleavened texture gives the classic bannock and the harder crisper oat or barley flat bread, although I’m not convinced these firm doughs were unleavened.

An excercise in re-invention

As there are quite a few versions of oatcakes, I’ve chosen to look at the most archaic, those leavened with a sourdough. This is clearly the oldest form and interesting in that the sourdough renders the piece more digestible and with increased nutrition.

\"Flatbreads\"Here, I am re-inventing the past and do not claim any regional authenticity. However, being familiar with cereals and what can be done with them, I have simply applied the sourdough technique as this is clearly how it was done. The dough or batter is simply left to spontaneously ferment overnight, or is seeded with a leaven which is carefully maintained. Elisabeth David documents this practice (\"English bread and yeast cookery\" pp410). In reality, what may be recorded as an “unleavened” bread was usually proved overnight and was self-leavened.

Recipes either don’t survive (this is largely because making oatcakes was such an everyday task and being unremarkable, was rarely remarked upon, especially by the literate classes) or are unclear, so I have made my own. They work beautifully and produce a delicious, light and soft flatbread. The fermentation is vital as it releases nutrients and creates more, renders the grain digestible and develops excellent flavour….obviously not lost on our forebears.

Today oatcakes are usually made with some added wheat flour as the techniques of using oats are largely lost, and is something which clearly comes with practice ... an archaic skill of much importance. Using some wheat flour makes it easier for those of us not steeped in the ancient art/craft. I have opted for the traditional approach, minus the wheat flour, and the overnight fermentation is remarkable in that it textures the dough or batter rendering it far more pliable and suitable for manipulation. It is important to “work” the batter or dough to some extent as this develops a more suitable texture: “great skill and dexterity, as well as practice, are necessary to make these cakes well, which when once attained, the process is very quickly executed”.

Cooking flatbreads

Historically it is interesting that the method for cooking UK flatbreads is on a hot stone or on a girdle/griddle, a flat usually round piece of cast-Iron. The girdle/griddle is very ancient and seems to be a common item of Celtic culture, sharing much with the Ancient Indian “Aryan” culture which calls the exact object a “tava” (among other terms), and upon which the classic of all flatbreads, the chapatti, is cooked. This object (tava) is a cultural-culinary signifier, betraying the antiquity of cultures seemingly distant, more recognised as such in India than here.

\"FlatbreadI use a cast iron frying pan for my flatbreads. It is ideal, but if you don’t have one, use the heaviest pan you can, but even French crepe pans will work. I’ve always wanted an open fire with an actual bakestone, as this would bake the best flatbreads I’m sure.

A notable variable is in the texture of the meal used. Shipton Mill’s pinhead oatmeal is most suitable to the task, and this may also be sifted to make a finer textured meal which produces a light oatcake. I have a small stone mill so I also stoneground the oatmeal which is a different texture again. The pinhead oats must be soaked overnight or for 12 hours and this is a key process, which should be followed by some “working” or “ kneading” by hand or with a wooden spoon to develop texture.

Give it a try

We\'ve put up a couple of recipes for you to try:

Oaten flatbreads

Hard tack oaten flatbread

We\'ve also found this excellent piece on outmeal bannock scones, complete with recipe, which is well worth a read.

We\'d love to hear how you get on with them - leave a comment on the recipe page or share your experience with us on our Facebook page.

For some further reading, have a look at a previous blog on, Bannock this site.

Carrying on the journey

We would love your contributions to the flatbread journey. If you have any recipes, please share them with us by adding them to our website (click here to find out how). If you need an extra incentive, we\'ll give anyone adding a recipe a 5% off voucher to use in our online shop.