Let them eat oatcake


ONE of the bonuses of having been born and raised in North East Lancashire is a fond acquaintance with stew and hard. Usually abbreviated to ‘stoo ’n’ ’ard’, this great delicacy used to be widely available in the Nelson area but is now seldom seen in public.

Served cold, slices of beef stew are placed on a buttered dried oatcake and smothered in home-pickled onions. Food of the gods.

The oatcake was a staple of this part of the country up to the middle of the 19th century, mainly because oats were one of the few crops which thrived in our short, wet, cold summers. By oatcake, I mean a soft, oval pancake rather than the biscuits which also bear the name in other areas of the UK.

I am told that the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, stationed over the border in West Yorkshire, were known as the ‘Havercakes’ because they ate so many. Corner shops and market stalls would prepare and sell their own stew and hard. In the mid-1980s, when I lived in the village of Fence, the kitchen of my local pub the White Swan still had a rack above the stove on which oatcakes were draped to dry out.

These days a few butchers still do their own stew but in my view there is none to touch Kevin Schofield, whose family business is in Scotland Road, Nelson, 100 yards from the house where I grew up and next door to Lee Holt’s excellent fish and chip shop which I wrote about here. People come from far and wide to snap up this delicious comestible, prepared by Kevin’s wife.

On a recent visit, when I asked how it is made, the bloke behind the counter was at first reluctant to go into details. The secrecy is understandable, since stew is one of the main sources of income for ‘Scho-ey’s’, with upwards of 120lb sold every week.

However, when I insisted my intentions were honourable, he conceded that the main ingredient is shin beef, on the bone. Mrs Schofield places this in a huge pan with a couple of ham ends, a bit of gelatine and the gravy from the previous day’s brisket. This is simmered very gently overnight before it is placed in bowls to set. After this occurs, it is ready to be sliced and slapped on the oatcake.

For those who find the prospect of this dish unappetising, I can say only that you shouldn’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Ask your butcher if he does his own stew. If not, why not try making it yourself? Traditional oatcakes are still sold on Colne market but these days come mainly from Staffordshire (there used to be a place in Stoke-on-Trent amusingly named The Oatcake Corral). They are available at supermarkets including Morrison’s and Booth’s. In their absence, buttered toast will do at a pinch. As we say up north, Bon appetit, ’appen!

The art of the sickie

AMONG my former newspaper colleagues there were many who reserved their creative powers for thinking up excuses to avoid turning up for work – in other words ‘throwing a sickie’.

It was funny how illness seemed to strike most frequently on a Sunday. And strangely enough, the most frequent absentees were those who lived furthest from the office.

There was one in particular whose home was in deepest Suffolk and once announced that ‘I can’t come in tonight because a crab bit me on the toe at Southwold.’

The same man claimed on another occasion that he was ringing from Ipswich station before returning home having soiled himself on the train. By the time he had got back to the house, cleaned himself up and changed into fresh trousers it would be too late to get to work, he insisted.

One former colleague in Manchester got his wife to ring in saying: ‘Jonathan can’t come in tonight because he’s got a cold sore on his lip.’ The chief sub replied: ‘He subs with his hands, not his f***ing lip. Tell him to come in.’ She hung up on him and Jonathan never arrived.

Also in Manchester, one of the subs left an early message with the newsdesk that he was seriously ill and when the chief sub rang his home to assess the patient’s condition, his young son answered. Chief sub: ‘Is your Dad there?’ Son: ‘No, he’s gone to the shop for some potatoes.’

There were countless examples of chaps ringing in to say they had flu ‘but I’ll be in tomorrow’.

Two of my Fleet Street colleagues were late one day in London because they got lost in Hampton Court Maze.

Then there was the bloke who said he was marooned in his house because someone had glued his doors and windows shut.

And one chap who had a short and tempestuous career on the Mail phoned to say he would be giving his shift a miss because he was in Portsmouth police station having clobbered his wife with a broom handle. That one was actually true. He escaped with a caution.

Old jokes’ home

Two pieces of concrete, one grey and one brown, are arguing in a pub about who is the hardest. Suddenly a lump of green concrete arrives at the bar and the other two slink quietly off into a corner. ‘I thought we were supposed to be tough,’ says the grey one. ‘Yes,’ replies the brown one. ‘But he’s a bloody cyclepath!’

A PS from PG

‘The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”’

PG Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters

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