I worked in Wiltshire recently, in a lovely place called Malmesbury, a town associated with Alfred the Great, the one who burned the cakes and the resting place of Hannah Twynnoy, the first person to have been mauled by a tiger in Britain!
There’s no room here to tell that tale, but if you’re interested Google it, it’s a bizarre story. Anyhow on my way back to the railway station to come home, I thought I’d nip into a local bakery and buy a sandwich.
I asked the lady for a cheese and pickle one. In a lovely Cotswold accent she said: “yes my dear, do you want it on white bread or brown, I make them all fresh.”
I pointed to the shelf behind her and said: “could I have one those scufflers please, they look grand.” She looked at me, looked at the shelf then burst out laughing. “Scufflers! Now what are they when they’re at home?”
There was a bit of a queue in the shop, mostly elderly ladies doing their Friday morning bun run, they all started laughing as well and repeating the word ‘scufflers’ as though trying to learn an exotic foreign language.
I pointed directly at what I wanted, ‘perhaps you call it a bread cake.’ The lady picked one up and turned it over in her floury hand, “ahh, you mean big baps.” Now I started to laugh, much to the amusement of the ladies in the line.
My ‘big bap’ filled with local cheese and a home made sweet pickle turned out to be delicious. I think it was more like what we would call an ‘oven bottom cake’ quite dense and heavy.
I ate it as the train pulled out of Cheltenham. A well dressed and coiffed local lady sitting opposite me watched me down it with a cup of tea from my flask. I dabbed my mouth with my hanky and said: “would you call that a big bap?” I think she thought I was a bit odd, so she just smiled and moved across to another seat.
I’ve since found out that only people in the Pontefract, Castleford and Featherstone area call bread cakes scufflers. So this led me to want to find out what a scuffler is. I called in to Bateson’s bakery on Beancroft Road and spoke to Gareth, one of the bakers there.
He told me bread cakes tend to have a bit more bread fat and yeast than a normal loaf and when they are rounded they are called bread cakes or properly plain teacakes and when they are triangular in shape they are scufflers.
I had my inquisitive head on now and asked: “so what’s an oven bottom cake then?” He pulled out a well-thumbed old recipe book filled with hand written recipes.
“An oven bottom cake has a slightly higher salt content and a tighter crumb, the traditional way to make them is to sprinkle ground rice on the oven bottom and bake them on that and then we flip them over with a baker’s peel halfway through cooking.” He showed me his baker’s peel, it’s a sort of thin shovel, like the ones Italian pizza chefs use to take pizzas in and out with.
So that explains what a scuffler is, but I’m still not sure how the word came to mean a bread cake.
I can guess that it connects to the origin of the word “scuff” which according to my Oxford English dictionary means to throw up dust or snow and is probably onamatopaeic in origin. You can imagine a baker scuffing up flour while making is scuffler.
Of course our cousins in the north east call their breadcakes stotties, but these tend to be less leavened and a bit chewier than ours.
“To stot” is a Geordie expression for to bounce, which is probably what that breadcake would do if you dropped one. And just so you know, if you go into a bakery in Bolton, ask for a barm cake and when in the Black Country, it’s a cob.
Give us this day our daily bread eh?