What did we eat before baguettes, toasties and Panini?

Dumfries, in common with most Scottish towns, has a particular lunch time snack – the toasted Panini.  First referenced in a 16th Century Italian cookbook, Panino (which comes from the Italian pane meaning bread) is traditionally a grilled sandwich made with slices of porchetta, that is popular in Central Italy.  Panini became trendy in Milanese bars called Paninoteche in the 1970s and 1980s, and then subsequently in New York.  Paninaro came to mean a fashionable young person who was very image conscious.

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Through the dominance of American fast food culture, Panini have become ubiquitous in Scotland, alongside white sliced bread toasties, and french baguettes. All of these breads are made from highly refined strong wheat flours which are very difficult to produce in Scotland.  Due to our shorter growing season, the wheat grown here has a much lower protein content which is fine for baking but lacks the elastic gluten required for conventional bread making. Scotland’s most successful cereal crop is Barley, once used in almost every home to bake bannocks.

According to the NFUScotland, out of the 2 million tonnes of Scottish barley produced in 2013, 55% was used as animal feed, 35% went to Whisky malting, and only a small proportion was sold as pearl barley or milled as flour for us to eat.

Bere (pronounced ‘bear’) is a form of six-row barley which has been grown in Scotland for thousands of years. Bere is quite possibly Britain’s oldest cereal grain still in commercial cultivation and was likely to have been brought here by Viking settlers. It has adapted to growing in soils with low pH and in areas with long daylight hours which makes it particularly suited to Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. It grows rapidly, being sown in the spring and harvested in the summer.  Beremeal was one of the earliest flours to be used to make bannocks.

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Robert Burns once described southern Scotland as a “land o’ cakes”. He didn’t mean desserts, but oatcakes and barley bannocks that would have been baked on an iron girdle over the fire.

“In Scotland, amongst the rural population generally, the girdle until recent times took the place of the oven, the bannock of the loaf.”  F. Marian McNeil, 1929

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In The Scots Kitchen, F. Marian McNeil suggests that the name bannok occurs in 1572, and derives from Latin panicum, probably through the influence of the Church. It may have referred originally to Communion bread.

Bannocks can range from soda breads, scones, or pancakes to a sweet fruity tea loaf in the case of the famous Selkirk bannock, but they usually have some barley meal in them.  After testing numerous recipes, I think the best turned out to be F. Marian McNeil’s “Modern Method” using Beremeal from Barony Mills in Orkney (which is available through Greencity).

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The Scots Kitchen Bannock (Modern Method)

Makes about 4 large bannocks

  • 8oz beremeal
  • 2oz unbleached white flour
  • 1 tsp cream of Tartar
  • pinch fine salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk, plus extra milk if needed
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

“General Directions” for making Bannocks from The Scots Kitchen

“The girdle should be put on the heat before the dough is mixed.  To test the heat, sprinkle a little flour over it. If it browns at once the girdle is too hot; if it takes a few seconds to brown, it will do. For scones and bannocks sprinkle the girdle with flour, unless they are themselves sufficiently floury to prevent sticking; but for Scots crumpets and drop scones grease the girdle very slightly with a piece of suet wrapped in a clean rag.  In a word, the girdle is floured for dough and greased for batter.”

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Method:

  1. Mix the flours, salt and cream of tartar.
  2. Put the buttermilk in a jug and stir in the bicarbonate of soda. Stir briskly and as it fizzes up, pour into the flour mixture.
  3. Make into a soft dough (adding some milk if needed).
  4. Turn out onto a floured board, handle as little as possible, but roll out lightly to about half an inch tick, then cut into rounds, or alternatively shape with your hands.
  5. Place on the hot girdle and bake slowly for about 10 minutes until the underside is brown, then turn bannock and brown the other side for about 5 minutes.  Serve warm with butter.

You can experiment with adding raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange rind to make a sweet bannock.  You could also try making your own butter and buttermilk, it’s really easy!

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Open Jar Collective are exploring the cultural history of the Bannock in Dumfries and are looking for local recipes. Come along to toast your own bannock on the fire and share your stories in celebration of Burns Night with The Stove Network, at the Big Bannock Burn on Sunday 25th January 4-8pm, 100 High Street Dumfries.

Bannocks o’ bear meal, Bannocks o’ barley,
Here’s to the Highlandman’s bannocks o’ barley.

Wha, in a brulzie, will first cry a parley?
Never the lads wi’ the bannocks o’ barley.

Bannocks o’ bear meal, Bannocks o’ barley,
Here’s to the Highlandman’s bannocks o’ barley.

Wha, in his wae days, were loyal to Charlie?
Wha but the lads wi’ the bannocks o’ barley!

Bannocks o’ bear meal, Bannocks o’ barley,
Here’s to the Highlandman’s bannocks o’ barley.

Robert Burns, 1794

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