Fancy Food: Prizewinning Oatcakes, Italian Honors


Effies Homemade

I didn't think I was ever one for campanalismo—the Italian word for hotly defending your own parish, i.e. neighborhood. Then I moved to Jamaica Plain, and I keep finding reason to. Like Effie's Oatcakes, even if they're made next door, in a fairly remote part of the city, Hyde Park. I first tasted them at City Feed, our local locavore market, which often offers samples of them heaped on big generous plates, beside one of its nice laminated signs describing local farmers and food producers. Trained, I now hope I'll find that plate every time I go—the kind of incentive that brings people back to stores, at least people as greedy as I.

Oatcakes are like thick crackers, rich and crumbly enough to be a cross between a cracker and a cookie, like nuttier, less-sweet digestive biscuits. The roughness of the oats, which have the texture of cracked wheat, save the thick crackers from being mealy (our producer, Dan Fromson, informs me that they're close to McVitie's Hobnobs; much as I like McVities wholemeal digestives, they do live up to their name), and though they're on the shortbread spectrum, they're nowhere near as inedibly buttery. Even if you've been to Scotland, their homeland (oats but not wheat can grow in a cold, wet climate, and butter is plentiful and affordable), you might not have tasted oatcakes as fresh as this—and the surprising liveliness of flavor convinces me that even in packaged biscuits, shorter transport time and of course lack of preservatives makes a big difference in flavor.

Joan MacIsaac, co-founder of Effie's with Irene Costello, named the company for her mother, Effie MacLellan, whose family recipes from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, inspired the biscuits. MacIsaac and Costello, I recall from their catering events many years ago, always had a particular touch with cornbread, and their corncakes for Effie's are even better than their oatcakes, I think, because I love the taste of cornmeal: slightly sweet and appealingly rough, like concentrated, long-life cornbread. The natural pairing of both biscuits is with cheese, particularly cheddars and my English favorites, Lancashire and Wensleydale; I can imagine the corncakes with macerated strawberries and blueberries, both coming into season, or crumbled into a trifle with custard, fruit, and whipped cream.

Raiding those booths—a.k.a. devouring samples left as a kind of "back in five minutes" sign—often brings the best discoveries of the show.

So, apparently, can the judges of the summer Fancy Food Show, which gave Effie's oatcakes the prize for best cookie last night at a ceremony presided over by our much-too-infrequent contributor Dan Barber. The show, which I went to last year and where I had an encounter with a licorice-bearing panda, always takes place on the most miserably hot and humid New York weekend of the summer, and fills the Javits Center with pre-Christmas commerce. It does bring together everyone in the packaged-food world, though, and is the one time of year that foreign producers looking to sell in the United States come over to find distributors, so it's generally full of interesting finds.

The prizes are always worth noting: the full list will, I assume, be on the site soon (I got a press release last night, posted here). There are old favorites, like Nueske's bacon, whose praises I sang in my own paean to what seems to be America's favorite food here, and Ciao Bella gelato; trend-bearers like sticky toffee pudding, which is turning up everywhere and is my current favorite sweet stodge; ginger beer, popular for a couple years; a "sweet chili" dip, reflecting the exaggeration of salt and sweet everywhere; and a "hot chocolate stick," which I guess I'll have to try.

The great pleasure of the show is always finding semi-sad-sack foreigners who have barely a chance of finding a distributor, and generally abandon their tiny booths to see the wonders of New York, on a rare trip financed by a trade consortium. Raiding those booths—a.k.a. devouring samples left as a kind of "back in five minutes" sign—often brings the best discoveries of the show, even if I'm not likely to find those products on a sample tray at City Feed. Perhaps because I was spied haunting the Italian booths so often, the Italian Trade Commission evidently gave me an award in abstentia for "Distinguished Service" at a ceremony at its New York headquarters last Thursday.

Aptly, the MC was Fred Plotkin, my friend and esteemed expert on all things Italian. His masterly Italy For The Gourmet Traveler has just been updated and published in this country, and you really shouldn't plan or set off on a trip without consulting it. For a taste of his wit and endless knowledge of every corner of the country, here's the first of several Q&As he did on the Times website last week. I'm sorry to have missed the ceremony—in typical Italian fashion, I heard about it secondhand, and never actually received an invitation, but I'm grateful nonetheless—but what I'm most hoping is that the award will allow me perpetual sample-stealing with impunity.