Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent) is the traditional day for enjoying pancakes throughout Britain. This year it occurs on February 24th.

Traditionally, Shrove Tuesday was a time for pranks, games (such as football and archery) and feasting. The custom of eating pancakes is very old – the Elizabethans ate them on this day and the practice many be even older, as the term ‘pancake’ dates back to the fifteenth century.

Along with other animal products, eggs and fat were not allowed during Lent and as spring is the peak laying time for hens, pancakes were a quick and tasty way to use up surplus eggs. Pancakes are probably the only traditional Lenten dish to survive throughout Britain today and it’s likely that they were developed from the small wheat cakes eaten by pagans in pre-Christian days, to celebrate the beginning of spring.

Long ago, the ‘Shriving Bell’ was rung from churches, throughout England, to call people to confess and be shriven (forgiven) their sins – hence the name Shrove Tuesday. The ringing of the bell was also the signal for school children and people everywhere to leave work for the rest of the day. In Leeds, youths went round all the schools, beating old tin cans to bring out the scholars to join them, after which they would continue their quest, until all the schools in the area had been visited and emptied of their pupils! Later still, the church bell was rung at eleven o’clock in the morning, as a reminder to housewives to prepare their pancake batter and so the bell became known as the ‘Pancake Bell’.

Several towns in England have pancake races on Shrove Tuesday- notably Olney in Buckinghamshire, where the Olney Race is believed to have first been run in 1445. Competitors must be local housewives and they must wear an apron and a hat or scarf. Before the race begins, the pancake bell is rung twice to warn the women to start making their pancakes and then to gather in the town square. Each woman carries a frying pan containing a pancake and the bell rings to start the race. The pancakes must be tossed three times during the race (a distance of 380 metres) and the winner and runner-up are awarded a prayer book from the local vicar. The verger can also claim a kiss from the winner! Afterwards, all the frying pans are laid around the font and there is a service of blessing.

In the Midlands, the first pancake made was given to the chickens, to ensure their fertility during the year. Some regions believed that the first three pancakes cooked were sacred and these were each marked with a cross before being sprinkled with salt and then set aside to ward off evil. In the north of England, pancake parties were held each year on Shrove Tuesday until the 1940s. In Ireland, girls were given the afternoon off school to make their pancake batter and would cook them in the evening, sitting round the fire. To toss her pancake successfully meant that a girl would be married within the year. In Ireland too, housewives played a trick on new young wives by sending them off to find a (non-existent) pancake sieve!

These elegant pancakes were a great favourite in the early eighteenth century. Thin Cream pancakes, named ‘Quire of Paper’ (because they were paper-thin) have a rich, delicate, spicy flavour.

110 g/4 oz butter
300 ml /10 fl oz single cream
75 g/3 oz plain flour
1 egg
2 tablespoons medium sherry
1 teaspoon orange flower water
Pinch each of grated nutmeg and cinnamon
Golden Caster sugar for sprinkling

Melt the butter and remove from the heat. Add to the other ingredients and beat well to a batter. Grease a 15 cm /6 inch frying or omelette pan with butter and pour in just enough batter to coat the base thinly. As soon as the mixture sets, turn carefully with a palette knife – the edges are very delicate. Pile on to a warm plate, sprinkling sugar between each pancake. You shouldn’t need to grease the pan for each pancake, as the mixture is very rich. Makes 10 thin pancakes.

If you’d like to find out about more British foods and traditions, visit my web site: Carol Wilson

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