WHEN I was wee, no Highland holiday was complete without a tall, cylindrical tin of oatcakes, centrepiece of all neat breakfast tables. I remember those tartan tins well, sometimes with the words, “As Granny baked them”, written on the side. The lid slid off the top in a very smooth and satisfying way, allowing me to delve inside and pull out an oatcake silently and unnoticed by anyone else around the table. Adding a curl of butter and golden marmalade, I relished this special treat. Moments like these only seemed to happen on holidays, when breakfast was a noticeably relaxed affair compared with the chaos at home on a school morning.

Oatcakes remain one of my favourite things, especially with a slice of cheese and a glass of wine at the end of a day’s work. Crunchy, tasty, mealy, nutty, I would happily feast on oatcakes and Scottish cheese to my heart’s content every day. Add salad and fresh fruit and it creates a quick and satisfying meal, full of natural goodness.

Oatcakes have been integral to the everyday Scottish diet for hundreds of years. The most primitive were made from a paste of oatmeal and water, spread on hot stones to bake by the fire. Later, they were shaped and baked on a hot iron girdle over the fire and then left by the hearth to dry out and turn crispy on a toasting stone, or metal plate. Every region of Scotland had its own name for oatcakes, depending on the grade of grain used, the thickness, shape or cut and the method used for baking. For centuries, Scotswomen have taken great pride in their skill at turning the basic ingredients into perfect oatcakes, working deftly to shape and bake before the sticky mixture becomes too dry.

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Rabbie Burns hailed Scotland as the Land o’ cakes with reference to the mighty oat sustaining our soldiers on long marches into battle. Tributes to Scottish oatcakes have been paid in poetry, prose and song like no other food item. I was dismayed, therefore, to learn that National Oatcake Day in August, has no connection with Scotland’s oatcake, but celebrates a type of cake made in Staffordshire. The Staffordshire oatcake is more like a thin pancake than a crisp biscuit. Made with oatmeal flour and yeast, there is very little similarity to our own.

Perhaps we should launch our own Scottish Oatcake Day? We incorporate traditional Scottish dishes into all kinds of summer events and festivals it seems, from porridge to haggis, smokies and tattie scones. Shouldn’t we also celebrate the humble Scottish oatcake more widely? Today’s oatcakes are produced commercially in Scotland on an extensive scale, by large and small enterprises of various kinds, including independent bakers. Some export them internationally, while others package and sell them on a wholly artisan scale. Several well-known brands are widely available and we tend not to bake our own any more, nor cherish the regional varieties and old names.

A National Oatcake Day could also serve to promote the wonderful range of artisan cheeses made throughout Scotland at the same time, providing an even greater excuse for celebrating oatcakes, as well as a large range of Scottish preserves, jams, pickles and chutneys, served with them.

Cheese is one of the earliest foodstuffs produced by humankind. We have an enormous heritage connected with high-quality dairy farming in Scotland. Even on a small Highland croft it was once quite common to own a house cow, providing fresh milk for making butter and traditional crowdie cheese. This cheese was a primitive type of fresh curd cheese, typical of many nations where it remains proudly at the heart of their own food culture to this day. Homemade crowdie went out of fashion in Scotland for some time, but was brought back into commercial production as an experiment by Highland Fine Cheeses at their family dairy in Tain in the 1950s. It is most commonly seen in little pots on the supermarket shelf and also popular rolled in black pepper or pinhead oatmeal or flavoured with wild garlic. I know of a few other dairy farmers who are making crowdie commercially today. A simple and delicious product, it marries extremely well with all sorts of additional ingredients and can be used to make gorgeous cheesecakes, sweet and savoury. Even in the olden days, Highlanders would have mixed crowdie with natural, fresh herbs, honey and fruits like wild blaeberries, raspberries and tiny strawberries. Crowdie is a simple foil for many great flavours, including smoked salmon and some of our more modern Scottish charcuterie.

It is possible to make your own crowdie. In times gone by, the milk would have been allowed to curdle gently in the warmth of the open fire and then perhaps, hung outside on the branch of a tree to strain the curds through muslin. It was often kept in stone jars and stored away in a cold place to preserve for the winter months when food was harder to come by. There are similar tales of the simplest methods of cheese-making all over Europe.

Unpasteurised milk would have been used for all cheese-making until relatively recently. However, there is a growing and dedicated movement towards rekindling greater production of raw milk cheese-making in Scotland, on a par with other countries. We have some amazing Scottish cheesemakers. When we first took over The Three Chimneys, I vowed I would serve a purely Scottish cheese selection and this continues to this day. Sadly, I have seen many artisan cheesemakers give up the challenge of meeting the strict environmental health regulations associated with this – most natural – method of food production. They found the constant pressure of food safety inspection too onerous. In our earliest years in Skye, we served some wonderful cheeses which are no longer made in this country. These included delicious goat’s and ewe’s milk cheeses, as well as cow’s milk cheeses of every kind.

I am determined to continue to support artisan cheese-making and raw milk cheese production in Scotland on a par with the cheese-making industry that exists successfully all over Europe. Great-tasting, natural cheese is a treat I cannot live without and with a few oatcakes, warm from the oven, there is no truer taste of real Scotland. Cheese, like oatcakes, is very much a part of our magnificent culinary heritage, deserving our full business support and wholehearted encouragement.

Oatcakes

(Makes 16)

200g medium oatmeal

25g plain wholemeal flour (plus a little extra for rolling)

¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda

Good pinch of fine salt

25g salted Scottish butter at room temperature (plus a little to grease the baking tray)

125ml hot water taken from a recently boiled kettle

Method

1. Preheat oven to Gas mark 5, 190°C. Lightly grease a large, flat baking tray and set aside.

2. Place the oatmeal, flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a mixing bowl. Add the diced butter and rub into the oatmeal mixture with your fingertips until it is broken up and well distributed.

3. Pour 100ml warm water into the mixing bowl and using your fingers, mix to form into a ball of soft dough. Add more water if required. Divide the dough in half.

4. Sprinkle a little flour on to a clean work surface and knead one half into a smooth ball. This should only take a few seconds. It is important to work quickly to avoid the mixture drying-out.

5. Roll the dough very thin (about 3mm depth) and cut round shapes using a 6cm pastry cutter. Lift each oatcake carefully with a palette knife and place on the greased baking sheet. The oatcakes can be placed quite closely together as they hardly alter in size while baking. Repeat using the second ball of dough.

6. Put the baking tray into the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes until firm to touch and turning golden at the edges. Remove from the oven to a wire tray to cool. The oatcakes will continue to crisp as they cool. Serve as soon after baking as possible, or when completely cool, store in an airtight tin.

Shirley Spear is owner of The Three Chimneys and The House Over-By on the Ise of Skye www.threechimneys.co.uk