Artisanal Oatcakes: Hand Crafted Hype or Economics of Craftsmanship

Info-grahic on the Artisan Downfall by Andrei Kallaur, Jen Cotton

Info-grahic on the Artisan Downfall by Andrei Kallaur, Jen Cotton

In direct marketing for small farms, a story of limited artisanal production sells. Our customers want a part of our story, an ingredient list no longer than 5-10 items, and the assurance that those ingredients are the best at hand.  From field to plate it’s an all inclusive package with an edible center, whether it’s oatcakes or ground beef.  The oatcakes don’t represent a huge part of our income, and perhaps you wonder why we are making oatcakes in a kitchen on grass fed livestock farm in Virginia.  I like to think of myself as an experimenting artisan.  The word artisanal  has become somewhat meaningless in the last 10 years, as even Burger King now uses it.  A quick look at how our oatcake production stands against this loss of meaning will illustrate an economics of craftsmanship.

Smith Meadows Oatcakes, Keswick Creamery Camembert & Next Step Produce Strawberries

Smith Meadows Oatcakes, Keswick Creamery Camembert & Next Step Produce Strawberries

The concept of artisanal farm production is somewhat complex, and deserves a whole string of blog posts to really illustrate my point. Every single farm adds something different that enriches what author Adam Davidson calls an economy of craftsmanship.  In his NY Times article, “It’s the Economy: Don’t Mock the Artisanal Pickle Makers,” he compels us to consider a craft-based economy as a slow motion Hail Mary play for the US.  I am not crazy about being defined as a middle class person who, as Davidson writes, “creat[es] niche products for other middle-class people who have enough money to indulge…”  I do, however, like being a small part of emerging, locally based economics.  I employ two women, in addition to myself, at Smith Meadows Kitchen.  The ingredients in our kitchen come from our farm, our friends’ farms, and a handful of farms farther away.  We produce 16-20 products (depending on the season) that we bring to 7 farmers’ markets and our farm store each week.  It may not be a complete answer for an economic turn around across the country, but improving my corner of one small farm in Virginia could help a profound chain effect.

Best Served with Other Artisanal Products

Best Served with Other Artisanal Products

How did oatcakes at Smith Meadows start?  I ate one at our annual Christmas open house for friends and family some time in the early 2000s.  It was delicious, and all I could remember was the green plaid ribbon detail on the package with a big N.  Research ensued. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, a package of Nairn’s Oatcakes was soon at my door in Berryville, VA– all the way from Scotland for only $10.95 with shipping. WOW!  It was great, but not a habit I could keep up on a teacher’s paycheck.  Since then Nairn’s has developed a USA branch of their distribution business.  You can find a box at some local food co-ops, and perhaps Trader Joes.  A video on the Nairn’s website narrated by children speaking in Scottish brogue is the perfect touch for people wanting carbohydrates to satisfy their conscience.  Why in the world would I want to make something to compete with this? I don’t.  I want to make the best oatcake I can, at a price my customers can afford.

Italian Made Roller-Mill and Oats from Next Step Produce

Italian Made Roller-Mill and Oats from Next Step Produce

So what about our ingredients?  This is where the story of our oatcakes is enriched by looking at what other farmers bring to the table in an economics of craftsmanship.  I have the luxury of selling and shopping at farmers markets in DC every week.  It’s both sides of very sharp edge.  At every market I take a break to visit my fellow vendors to fill my pantry.  One of my stops is at Next Step Produce.  Heinz, his wife Gabrielle and a small army of workers bring a bounty of food from their 80 acre farm.  My favorites include: grape kiwis, fava beans, Asiatic persimmons and oats.  You might wonder, “Are those Heinz’s oats in Smith Meadows Oatcakes?” No, and here is why.  In a blog about his grains, Heinz describes the challenges of being a small producer of commodities.  With the learning, machinery and production curve involved in producing grains, the most sustainable product he can bring to market is hulled grains– not flour, or rolled oats.  The solution for Next Step Produce is to encourage their customers to buy a small flour mill to make their own flour, and rolled oats. When I want porridge, I prefer to soak mine overnight and get up an extra 20 minutes to cook them without rolling.  When I want to make oat cakes for 7 markets and a our farm store, I have to find another solution– at least until Heinz gets his production mill up and running.

Nyamsuren Mixes Oats, Spelt Flour, Lard, Salt and Milk for Oat Cakes

Nyamsuren Mixes Oats, Spelt Flour, Lard, Salt and Milk for Oat Cakes

Here is the trajectory of the major ingredients that make our oatcakes.  The oats are delivered to the kitchen by Frankferd Farms (along with our organic flours that we mix with our pasture-raised eggs to make pasta).  These organic oats originally come from Grain Millers out of Iowa, where they were grown.  The lard is delivered to our kitchen by one of our farm apprentices after a trip to the butcher in Maugansville, MD, where it is wet-rendered from the grass-fed fat of our hogs.  The milk comes from a local dairy where I own a share in a cow.  The craftsmanship comes from a lot of trial and error in our kitchen.

You may wonder why I included a description of Heinz’s grains, or why I mentioned the near perfect Nairn’s oatcakes with an historical pedigree.  It’s all about the individual story, from field to plate.  In a small operation with two devoted employees and myself, we must find products that will make our market menu more interesting and fill our days with work we enjoy.  When I first researched recipes for our oatcakes, I wanted to know more about their history.  Nairn’s website provides a wonderful narrative.  Additionally, oatcakes are made in lots of ways in lots of different places.  Here is a link to a map of Stoke on Trent, where within a 36 mile radius there are 43 different oatcake shops.  Stoke is not even in Scotland. Do they all have a different pedigrees for their ingredients?  Perhaps.  Which is the best?  I’ll tell you after my trip to the UK.  Until then, enjoy one of ours.

Share on facebook Share on twitter Share on email Share on print More Sharing Services 0 'Woman making oat cakes' from George Walker's 'Costume of Yorkshire' 1814 © Huddersfield Local Studies Library

'Woman making oat cakes' from George Walker's 'Costume of Yorkshire' 1814 © Huddersfield Local Studies Library

As Davidson suggests in his article, a craft-based economy can be something easy to poke fun at, or denounce for a lack of purity. Hipsters in their basements in Brooklyn, or working mothers in small commercial kitchens on farms could be here today and gone tomorrow.  It is the passion that drives such small businesses that I hope is here to stay.  By educating more people on what sustainable means on all levels through our own trial and error, I feel certain that a brighter economic and ecological future is ahead.  This optimism comes from an economy of artisans, which I define as follows: hard working people making good things that improve life, and teaching others to do the same.

Nancy Polo

Nancy is a first generation Italian-American who makes good food and thinks about it. She has lived on this farm since 1998.

One response to “Artisanal Oatcakes: Hand Crafted Hype or Economics of Craftsmanship”

  1. Michelle Dudley

    As someone on a low gluten diet, these Scottish oatcakes are my new FAVORITE snack. So very local, too! I’ve been enjoying them plain, with cheese and/or a dollop of honey. Thank you, Nancy, Nyamsuren & Patti for your craftmanship and creative culinary expressions.

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