Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Tuesday, or just Pancake Day… whatever you choose to call it, it’s happening today.
Although its date varies, Pancake Day is always on a Tuesday, as it is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of “Lent” – a traditional period of fasting and religious observance lasting around six weeks up to Easter.
Pancakes are associated with the last day before Lent because they were a good way to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk and sugar, which pious people should abstain from during the 40 days of Lent. Of course it also uses up the fat used to fry the pancakes and in many Latin countries the last day before Lent is celebrated as “Mardi Gras”, which literally means “Fat Tuesday”, the last day of fat eating.
In Christianity, the ingredients of pancakes have also been used to symbolise the “four pillars of faith”; eggs for creation, flour as the mainstay of the human diet, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity. The word “shrove” comes from the old word “shrive”, which means to obtain absolution for your sins through confession and/or doing penance. Christians would expect to be “shriven” just before the start of Lent.
These days far fewer people observe Lent in a religious way, but the tradition of Pancake Tuesday remains popular in largely secular societies. As well as eating pancakes, many other traditions have built up around the day, often linked to particular places. As far back as the 12th century, several places held “mob football” games on Shrove Tuesday, which was either wholly or partly a public holiday.
Often taking place between neighbouring towns or villages, these “games” had unlimited numbers of players and very few rules, the only object being to get a “ball” (usually an inflated animal bladder) to a marker at either end of a defined playing area. These markers could be hundreds or yards, or even miles apart, and players used any means possible to reach them, with mass brawls and injuries a frequent occurrence.
Most of these games died out after the 1835 Highways Act outlawed playing football on public highways, but they live on in several communities across England, with versions played in towns all the way from Northumberland to Cornwall, and similar festivities in several Scottish towns.
Less violent Shrove Tuesday festivities include pancake races, in which contestants run a course while flipping their pancake in a frying pan. In some places, men wishing to compete must first dress up as a ‘housewife’, in apron and headscarf!
In the North Yorkshire port of Scarborough, Shrove Tuesday is celebrated with a skipping festival on the foreshore, traditionally using long ropes from the harbour. Across the Pennines in Lancashire, some villages have a tradition similar to Halloween in which children will knock on doors and ask “please a pancake?”, to be rewarded with sweets or fruit. It comes from the times when poor farm workers would knock on their wealthy landlords’ doors asking for ingredients for their pancakes.
So, if all this pancake talk has given you a taste to join in, you’ll need a recipe, and it’s really very simple. Mix 120g/4oz of plain flour with a pinch of salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and crack into it two good-sized eggs. In a separate bowl mix 210ml/7fl oz of milk with 90ml/3fl oz of water. Use a wooden spoon the beat the eggs into the flour, gradually adding the milk and water to get a smooth, lump-free batter the consistency of single cream. Stir in one tablespoon of vegetable oil and leave to stand for at least 30 minutes before using.
When you’re ready to cook, heat a non-stick frying pan until very hot, melt a small knob of butter in it then add a ladleful of your pancake batter. ‘Swirl’ in the pan so the batter evenly covers the base then fry for 30 seconds to a minute until the downside is golden brown. Then carefully turn the pancake with a spatula or palette knife and fry the other side. If you’re feeling confident, you could try flipping it!
Repeat the process with the remaining batter, which should make about six pancakes, and serve them hot sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice or any topping of your choice. Enjoy!