Amanda Edmiston, Botanica Fabula
It all started over 40 years ago, with me sitting on the yellow linoleum floor underneath my Gran’s kitchen table.
The Aberdeen granite chill of the patterned floor contrasting with the hot draft of confection scented heat as she opened the oven door to reveal an Autumn hewed gingerbread, ruby crusted with glace cherries at my behest, scenting everything with fragile cinnamon tinged threads of aroma.
The brown and cream mason bowl beside me was licked clean, every last trace of creamy batter had been devoured, with the cake too hot to be cut, I vividly remember picking the ancient buttery crystallised crusts of sugar from the thick lignan soft pages of Florence Marian McNeill’s Scots Kitchen, too young to understand the words but wholly appreciative of these cake-adorned rituals that it cast into my young life.
I remember being a year or so older, standing up on a kitchen stool, learning how to rub butter into flour, sensing it warm and then melt ever so slightly between my fingers as it came together as a fine crumb, making a well into which would be poured deep brown molten treacle and sugar, or when to beat in eggs with a wooden spoon or to fold in oats with a metal one.
I remember watching my Gran write notes in the book’s margins about quantities needed sizing up weights for events and tea parties I knew nothing of.
When my gran died her cookery books where what I reached for, my mum is a weaver of stories and I learnt from her as together we cooked up a steaming pan of soup, the smell of fresh baked cheese scones fragrantly enhancing the gingery tones of carrot soup, how my gran had been given the book by her mother in law., my great gran when she had got married and it felt as if I held a tangible link to my forebears.
It’s fair to say Florence Marian McNeill has been scribing folklore and food across the soft skin-tissue where my fontanelles once dipped since I started poring over my grandmother’s self-annotated copy of The Scots Kitchen all those decades ago.
As I got older something of the domesticity glimpsed at between its yellowing leaves left me sensing a mycelian connection, rooted like the tatties we both talk of, tactile, shared on almond and vanilla-scented lignin and baked into a dreaming-bread, like a folkloric binding to the “superstitious keeping of days” as yet unwilling to relinquish its logic to the scientific enquirers, but prescient nonetheless.’
I now wanted to know more about this writer, about her personal life, I wanted to understand how an Orkney minister’s daughter achieved so much but is now at risk, it feels of fading from our collective memory
I read what I could gather of her work, she was, albeit quietly, one of 20th century Scotland’s greatest female voices, a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, Universities of Glasgow and Paris, one of the organisers of the Scottish Women’s Suffrage movement in a time we now recognise as pivotal in the change; a woman who travelled alone to Germany in 1914, Greece in 1918, and who went on in 1929 to write what is probably the best known collection of Scottish cooking heritage, which she created ‘to capture a moment’ where unrecorded personal and local nuances of cooking where at risk she felt of becoming homogenised, a flicker of insight into the future world of mass produced food stuffs.
It’s been over three years since I wrote those words, re-examining my relationship with my Gran’s treasured copy of The Scots Kitchen for ‘Feasting, Folklore and Florence’ an interactive performance piece for The Scottish International Storytelling Festival but creating the piece sent me on a fascinating journey, taking me beyond memories of recipes and insights into McNeill’s incredible life as a pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement and a recorder of Scots lore… and into the magical world of Oats (Avena Sativa) and the iconic place they hold in Scotland’s culture.
Their calm, restorative, nutritious profile hides a magical quality, albeit one with a soothing air of domesticity. Recipes abound for sowens, porridge and whisky augmented brose, but it’s the oatcakes and bannocks that fascinate me most.
One of my favourite sections in the Scots Kitchen is the piece about oatcakes, bannocks and scones…so many subtle variations and an oatcake for every occasion.
Oatcakes to celebrate St Columba’s Day, baked over a Rowan wood fire with a silver coin in each one; Teethin’ bannocks with rings inside and Cryin’ bannocks to soothe children; Mill bannocks a foot in diameter, millstone-like with a hole in the centre.
But the one I’d like to share with you today, is the one baked and eaten to celebrate the arrival of Spring, the Bannoch Bride.
Although Florence couldn’t find anyone still baking this legendary treat she did discover more about the Beltane bannock an oatcake dressed with a caudle of eggs butter and cream according to one source, divided into nine sections each with a square protruding knob , each knob then dedicated to a vital domestic animal or a disruptive wild one and then thrown into the fire to protect or deter accordingly. So although we don’t have a ritual or story to go with the early Spring quarter day bannock Bride, maybe that gives us the opportunity to create our own, associate it maybe with hopes and wishes for the forthcoming brighter days. We also have the question of which day to celebrate with this rich, nourishing oatcake, the 2nd of February associated with Imbolc or St Bride or the new quarter day of the 28th of February. Once a date when we most need to call on Spring has been chosen and a story found that resonates for us, then we bake… a homemade oatcake, the ideal comfort food to eat maybe whilst browsing through gardening notes, re-awakening our seed collections and start planning for Spring growth.
So maybe you’ll join me as we look towards Spring and bake an oatcake!
Florence Marian McNeill suggests you need these ingredients for an oatcake:
- 4 ounces of Oatmeal
- A teaspoonful of fat or dripping, (plant-based oil works just as well)
- A pinch of baking soda,
- A pinch of Salt
And enough hot water to mix into a stiff dough
She also says you need four special implements:
- A Spurtle for stirring the mixture
- A notched bannock stick or rolling pin which leaves a criss-cross pattern.
- A Spathe: a long-handled heart shaped iron implement for transferring the cakes from board to gridle
- and the banna-rack to cook them on… (I think we can probably find a way to manage without!)
- A firm dough is then made kneaded and baked over a smokeless fire.
This excerpt from one of Amanda Edmiston’s sessions inspired by the work of F. Marian McNeill was originally published in Herbology News: “The Soft Issue”.
The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Lore, with Old-time Recipes. F. Marian McNeill, Blackie & Son. 1929