I’m currently writing a historical novel set in China with an English protagonist who’s ex British Army and there’s a possible flashback scene involving him eating some havercake. Libraries, museums, the internet: whilst these are all great sources of research for a writer I like to mix in some practical experience with my theory.
This all started when I attempted to equip one of my English characters with a bag he had inherited from his time in the British Army. I didn’t know what to call said bag, what the bag should look like, whether he wore it over both shoulders like a rucksack or just over one shoulder or . . . well . . . and so on. This is a great example of me becoming obsessed over a tiny detail which probably doesn’t matter much in the end, but I like to get my research as damned near perfect as I can.
I stumbled upon ‘haversack’, as stated by Wikipedia:
‘The name ‘Haversack’ originates from its usage to carry ‘Havercake’. Havercake was a rough type of bread simply made from oats and water, with the addition sometimes of yeast to bulk it out.’
‘The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment was nicknamed the ‘Havercake Lads’ because the recruiting sergeants used to display a piece of havercake held aloft on a bayonette, to signify that food would never be a problem if enlisted; a great encouragement to recruiting when the general population was starving.’
You might be familiar with The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment because it was known, prior to 1852, as the 33rd Regiment of Foot (and also the First Yorkshire West Riding Regiment). This was the regiment that Sharpe first joined (of the Sharpe’s Rifles TV series and novels) before he moved to the 95th Rifle Regiment where he then used a rifle instead of a musket and wore his famous green jacket.
A staple component of a wandering adventurer’s diet always seems to be some kind of ‘hardtack‘, for example cram and lembas from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. I’ve always imagined these tacks to be a hard biscuit of some kind and I imagined that havercakes would be little different.
So I decided to make some!
After nosing around online I found a recipe listed at the following website which mentions a pub over in Yorkshire called the Dog & Gun which serves havercakes. Before I get cracking with my oats and water, I think it’s worth mentioning that the Dog & Gun looks like a great pub, dog friendly, and they even advertise a Havercake Ale! Definitely worth a trip sometime.
Step 1: Ingredients
My first problem was getting hold of the ‘fine oatmeal’. I couldn’t find any in the shops, but after searching the internet I came across a post where someone said ‘just use a blender on some porridge oats’.
You’ll need a blender with a lid, because a hand-blender just flings the oats everywhere (trust me!).
Anyway, as you can see it worked a treat . . .
Step 2: Batter
As per the instructions, I mixed a little salt in with my fine oatmeal and flour.
Then I warmed the milk and water in the microwave. Not much, just lukewarm. I’m guessing this is just to get the yeast reaction going, so you certainly don’t want to boil the milk/water or you’ll just kill your yeast.
Then I slowly added the milk/water a little at a time to form a batter . . .
Now I added the yeast, and it’s worth noting that I used dried yeast and 1 ounce is a heck of a lot! I’m not sure, but you could probably use a lot less. Perhaps half as much.
It’s also worth noting that, after being very careful not to get any lumps in my oatmeal/flour/milk/water mix, I bunged all the yeast in at once and I ended up with a very lumpy mixture.
Anyway, the instructions say to leave the batter aside for 20 minutes. The original recipe used to be left overnight. In the end I left mine for around 30 minutes as I came back a couple of times to knock out the lumps and it looked OK in the end . . .
Step 3: Cooking
Havercakes are cooked just like pancakes. I used a frying pan with a little butter to stop them from sticking (and they were very sticky, much more so than traditional pancakes which are thinner).
I poured a little of the batter into the centre of the pan, peeking under the side to check how quick each was cooking.
I flipped each havercake over to cook the top side. Not sure if you’re supposed to do this or not? Perhaps my heat was a little high? But if I didn’t flip them over, they started to burn.
I was extremely pleased with the final result!
Then for the tasting . . .
Well, I have to be honest, they were a bit nasty. But what were you expecting? That I’d discovered some long lost culinary delicacy? We’re talking about a 19th century travel ration.
I’ve no doubt havercakes provided a welcome source of sustenance for a battle weary English redcoat, and I’m glad I cooked them, but I think I’ll stick to my noodles . . .