Twitter, that font of fleeting information, has informed me that today is the seventh annual Staffordshire #OatcakeDay. It’s a way of raising attention: the baked good has history and it’s a nice way to use food to promote Staffordshire and, in particular, Stoke-on-Trent. Stoke, like Rochdale, is another place that has pockets of extreme deprivation and has also been somewhat maligned in the contemporary imagination. Like Rochdale, there’s also more to Stoke than this*. I like Staffordshire, however, I have some news: oatcakes are everywhere and in Rochdale they are particularly ‘jannock’.
Jannock (sb) dark-coloured bread or cake made of oatmeal, or
of coarse wheat-meal ; also, metaphorically applied to anything
or any action that is honest or thorough.
(From Nodal, J., & Milner, G. (1875) A Glossary of the Lancashire Dialect. Manchester: Manchester Literary Club (p. 168)
In his sketch ‘Rochdale to Blackstone Edge’, Edwin Waugh records a journey on foot made from Rochdale to the hills and over towards Calderdale capturing dialect conversations with people from around the area. During this sketch, he laments the changes in the landscape and the scarcity of jannock, the ‘thick, unleavened oatcake’ (1855: 129). His 1874 dialect sketch ‘Jannock’ featured a warm welcome he had from people in Broughton-in-Furness.
The wholesome nature of jannock was similarly captured in a letter written to The Spectator in 1882. Responding to a review regarding a new novel by Jessie Fothergill, letter writer J. B. Roangson insisted that the word jannock, ‘possesses much quaint significance and force’, and that it has two key meanings: to ‘do jannock’ is to ‘act squarely and uprightly’, and ‘to be jannock,” it sums up’ all the best ‘virtues that go to form an honest, straightforward, and manly man.’ (The Spectator, 1882). (The latter claim may have amused Fothergill.) In Vera Winterbottom’s The Devil in Lancashire (1962) she too notes the use of jannock to indicate that someone has a good, solid personality.
The image of the oat as something that is ‘honest’ and ‘straightforward’ is something that captured Waugh’s imagination; many of his poems depict a nostalgia and longing for a simple, rural life. Oats are cheap, they grow well in moist ground – there’s no shortage of wet weather in north west England! The agricultural fields of rye would have surrounded Waugh’s beloved ‘wild, wild moors’ (1893). According to historian Henry Fishwick ‘there was a considerable amount of land in the parish on which oats were grown; in 1794 there were 889 acres, and in the following 925 acres thus used’ (1889: 58). (About 3.6 square kilometres or 1.4 square miles in 1794; 3.7 square kilometres or 1.4 square miles in 1795.)
You can get an idea of the landscape through these two historical maps, the moorlands are to the north and north east of Rochdale:
Yates (1786), republished from Lancashire County Council ‘Old Maps Online’
Greenwood (1818) Lancashire County Council ‘Old Maps Online’
Oats (Avena sativa) harvested were used for bulking out pottage (a stew of beans and whatever veg and fish/meat is to hand) and are a key ingredient in black pudding soaking up congealed blood and fat, holding the thick, dark sausage shape. The grain is also fed to livestock, and it features in the food I feed to my cats; it’s an important grain. Low in fat and filling, oats contain fibre, magnesium, protein. A diet of oats is monotonous; oats were the food of the poor and working class. As Drummond & Wilbraham describe ‘records of the diets of the Lancashire operatives in 1864 show that they lived largely on bread, oatmeal, bacon, a very little butter, treacle, tea and coffee.’ (Drummond & Wilbraham, 1991, cited in James, 1997:76).
Today you might be eating variations on the theme of ‘oatcake’ depending on where you are; the recipes change and travel. There are, for example, Lancashire haverbread/clapbread and oatcakes, Derbyshire oatcakes, Scottish oatcakes, and, of course, Staffordshire oatcakes. (And these recipes may well vary from family to family, village to village.)
So, in the spirit of oatcake solidarity: Happy #OatcakeDay Staffordshire!
Geographical Association ‘Exploring the geography of food‘ (teaching resources as well as self-learning materials).
Lancashire County Council ‘Old Maps of Lancashire‘ a brilliant online resource collection of maps and mapping of places in Lancashire.
Everywhere has flaws and I do like Stoke. There are some very friendly pubs that, back in the early 2000s, generously put up with our metal band during open mic nights.
Fishwick, H. (1889) History of the Parish of Rochdale in the County of Lancaster. Rochdale: James Clegg.
Allison James (1997) ‘How British is British food?’ in Pat Caplan (Ed) Food, Health and Identity. London: Routledge, pp. 71-86.
J.B. Roangson (1882) ‘Letter to the editor: Jannock’ The Spectator [online] 28th October. p.15. Available from: http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/28th-october-1882/15/-jannock- [Accessed 8th August 2017]
Edwin Waugh (1855) Sketches of a Lancashire Life and Localities. London: Whittaker and Co.
Edwin Waugh (1874) ‘Jannock’ in George Milner (Ed) Tufts of Heather by Edwin Waugh. Manchester: John Heywood (A copy can be located here: Gerald-Massey.org.uk).
Edwin Waugh (1893) ‘Oh, The Wild, Wild Moors’, in George Milner (Ed) Poems and Songs by Edwin Waugh. With a Preface and Introductory Essay on the Dialect of Lancashire Considered as a Vehicle for Poetry. Manchester: John Heywood.
Vera Winterbottom (1962) The Devil in Lancashire. Heaton Mersey, Stockport: The Cloister Press Ltd.