The grace of a gray bannock is in the baking of it… Scottish Proverb
Oatcakes or Bannocks were traditionally eaten on old world feast days to mark the changing seasons. And roundabout Feb 1st or 2nd, they were known as “Bannoch of Bride” in honour of St. Bridget or Brìghde. This goddess (and later saint) of Ireland, Scotland & the Isle of Man, returns to the earth on the eve of her feast day, also known as Imbolc, to herald the arrival of spring. And to honour the occasion bonnach (bannocks in Scotland) were baked and left out in the hope she would leave her blessings of fertility, prosperity, and good health in return. (To learn more about Brigid & her Feast Day click here)
According to this wonderful source for all things bannock, oatmeal breads were once a staple of the everyday diet, but during festival and feast days they were often dressed up with seeds, berries, herbs and honey. Recipes varied according to the region and period, but the earliest bannocks were dense, flat cakes of unleavened oatmeal dough, formed into a round or oval shape, then baked on a girdle (think griddle). The “most luxurious kind,” according to Isobel Grant, author of Highland Folk-Ways were “covered with caudle, a thin batter of eggs, milk and butter and then baked before the fire.”
Generally speaking, making the Bannock of Bride was a ritual that ensured the prosperity and well-being of the household. Prayers like the following were said over the kneading, “Progeny and prosperity of family Mystery of Michael, protection of Trinity”. Then the bannock would be cut into quarters and the prayer continued “Progeny and prosperity to ________ (whoever it’s for – person or family name) Mystery of Michael, shielding of the Lord”.
On the Quarter Days (like Imbolc) the boundaries between worlds are stretched thin so the Bannocks were often sprinkled with water from a holy well to prevent the Good Folk from stealing them. And it was possible to avert any bad omens or bad luck by serving the cake with plenty of butter ‘without the asking.”
On the eve or day of Brigid’s Feast, Bannock cakes were given out to small girls who went around town with a Bride doll (usually a straw effigy of Brigid) and it was customary for mothers to give out gifts of bannocks and butter. Bannock was also left out as an offering for St Brigid as she visited local households farms to bless them.
Today bannocks come in a large variety of types ranging from cake to shortbread, can be thick or thin, include dried fruit and spices, and are usually leavened to have more of a cake-like consistency to suit modern tastes. For this recipe I chose to to make a more authentic version using only oats and oat flour. I added a couple of tablespoons of sugar and minced rosemary for flavour (and because it is a herb sacred to Brigid). This I cut into four quarters to mark the “cross quarter day” of Imbolc (halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox) and topped it off with a “caudle” of eggs and cream, and several generous sprinklings of sugar.
To be sure, these simple little oatcakes aren’t fancy or sweet, but they are sweet-ish, hearty and savory. Bannocks can be distinguished from oat cakes because they are baked on a girdle (think griddle) where oatcakes are toasted before the fire after having been partly baked on a girdle. So I’m going to try toasting my Bannocks this year during our annual Imbolc Bonfire! I’ll let you know how it turns out!
Rosemary Oat Bannock
Makes two small Bannock cakes (or eight pieces total)
- 1 cup rolled oats
- 1 cup oat flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
- 1/2 cup cream or milk (plus one extra tablespoon for the caudle)
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary (1 tablespoon dried)
- 1 tsp. of grated orange zest (optional)
- 3 tablespoons of sugar (and three more tablespoons for sprinkling)
- 1 egg yolk (for the caudle)
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Grease a cast iron skillet or baking sheet.
- Place the oats, flour, salt, sugar, rosemary and orange zest in a large bowl, mix together with a fork. Cut the cold butter into the flour mixture. Stir in the cream until all the flour is absorbed.
- Gather the rough dough together and place on a surface lightly dusted with oat flour. Knead until the dough holds its consistency (but don’t overwork).
- Divide the dough in half and roll out each half into a circle about 1/4 inch thick.
- In small jar, vigorously mix your egg yolk with a tablespoon of cream. Then brush the mixture over the top of the bannock. Sprinkle with sugar.
- Cut each circle into 4 wedges and arrange the wedges 1/4 inch apart on the baking sheet.
- Bake about 20 minutes or until golden and crisping at the edges.
Note: you can also apply a second brushing of caudle and sugar halfway through baking – I did!