In a previous post I mentioned pancake races, and when people wrote to ask what a pancake race was I promised to explain, so here we go:
New Orleans revellers call it Mardi Gras, devout Christians of various sects call it Shrove Tuesday, but most British people know the last day before Lent as Pancake Day. It started out part of the religious festival of Shrove-tide (the period made up of Quinquagesima Sunday and the following two days, but I’m sure we all already knew that, didn’t we?). In the Middle Ages, to go a-shroving was to go door-to-door singing for money or just generally to make merry during Shrove-tide, because when Lent started everybody was expected to be penitent. In fact, you were really supposed to make your confession on Tuesday to be ready for Ash Wednesday; to make a confession was to be shriven, which morphed into shrove. (Shrove being the past tense of to shrive, you have to think of it from the priest’s point of view for shrove to make sense).
So where do pancakes come into it? Making pancakes was a good way to use up all the fat and sugar and eggs people had in the house, which they weren’t supposed to eat during Lent. (Given that hens are heathens with no respect for the liturgical calendar and therefore don’t give up laying for Lent, I wondered whether people threw away all the eggs they weren’t allowed to eat or whether the surplus they must have stockpiled by Easter gave rise to the tradition of Easter eggs. But Zoroastrians were painting eggs for a celebration of spring 500 years before Christ, so while it’s convenient to end Lent with a lot of eggs on hand, it’s apparently only a coincidence.)
The British traditionally serve their Pancake Day pancakes—really what the Americans and the French would call crêpes—sprinkled with sugar and fresh lemon juice. But just like everybody else, the British can put anything into a crêpe, savoury or sweet, and don’t of course have to wait for Pancake Day to eat them.
For one thing, the nice people at Crêpe Affaire who have six locations around London, will be happy to serve you year round with traditional lemon and sugar crêpes (which they call the Mellow Yellow), or with crêpes filled with anything from marinated Thai vegetables to baked beans, plus a list of extra toppings reminiscent (in form, if not in flavour) of a pizzeria menu. (Whoever names the dishes at Crêpe Affaire must be partial to crêpes with fresh strawberries, chocolate and whipped cream; that’s called “I’ll Have What She’s Having”).
I ran across Crêpe Affair in the retail arcade on the lower floor of St Pancras station, one of London’s major railway terminals, a retail centre the developers hope will become a tourist destination in itself, with Europeans from the Continent coming in by EuroStar (the high-speed rail line that runs through the Channel Tunnel) to shop. Presumably visitors from France, a country full of crêperies, won’t head straight for Crêpe Affair, but then again, British crêpes are presumably different from French ones and French visitors might enjoy la différence. I once had lunch in a French crêperie at which the proprietor was extremely proud that he could furnish us with brand new menus he’d had printed in both French and English. Unfortunately for him, his crêpes with smoked bacon—in French, lardons fumé—had been rendered in English as “crêpes with lard smell”.
As far as I can tell, French cooks don’t usually produce anything like American pancakes, but while pancake is generally used in the UK to mean delicate crêpes a good stiff wind would blow away, some stores here do sell the thicker, baking-powder pancakes Americans are used to, sometimes calling them Scottish pancakes. These are about 5 inches across, and can be found in the bread aisle in supermarkets right next to the muffins, crumpets and scones.
Then there’s the “Big Pancakes” line from the Genesis Crafty Bakery in Northern Ireland; “Big pancakes mean only one thing,” says the package, “big toppings!” Like so many things here, from parking spaces to washing machines, that turn out to be smaller here than in the US, Big Pancakes are all of about 6 inches across.
“Have you ever tried maple syrup on your pancakes?”, says the Genesis Crafty advert at the site where I order groceries on line. “Over 500 million North Americans cant be that wrong” (although we can hope that some of them are better at punctuation than the writer of that copy). Maple syrup is found over by the freezer case here, along with the chocolate syrup for ice cream. But then again some on-line retailers here list American-style pancakes under the category dessert, and one brand (billed as “American Style…delicious buttermilk pancakes”) comes packaged with a pouch of butterscotch sauce.
Depending upon which brand you pick, the instructions will tell you to toast the pancakes in the toaster (the manufacturer suggests serving them with honey), to broil them (UK: grill them), or to eat them right from the package cold, which is how they were served to me when I was invited to tea with a friend of my husband’s family, the only time I’ve had the pre-made pancakes here. If I want American-style pancakes, I make them. And eat them hot.
I do not, however, race with them. A few towns in the UK hold footraces on Pancake Day, with the runners flipping crêpes in a frying pan as they go, either just for fun or to raise money for charity. The most famous is in Olney, a town in Buckinghamshire where women have been running in pancake races ever since 1445 (yes, 1445, or almost 50 years before Columbus started looking to buy a few ships). To be eligible, you must be female; over 18; wearing a skirt or dress plus a kerchief or similar headgear and an apron; and equipped with a pancake in a pan, which you must flip at least 3 times during your run. Unfortunately this year most of the runners wore T-shirts over their skirt-and-apron combos to publicize a fund-raising effort for a local school, a look which rather detracted from the Olde Worlde feel of the event, but National Geographic has some good pictures of other pancake racers here.
Since 1950, the women of Liberal, Kansas, have been running under similar rules and comparing their scores with the women of Olney, though I’m not sure that in Kansas they have the same victory condition: in Olney, the winner is traditionally the first pancake flipper to make it to the church with an intact pancake, offer it to the bell-ringer or verger (depending upon whom you ask, especially if you ask the verger or the bell-ringer, presumably—although it’s possible that these are really the same person), and get a kiss in exchange. In some places, one of the bells rung on Pancake Day was, and for all I know may still be, known as the Pancake Bell, supposedly rung to remind people to mix up their batter. I know pancake batter is supposed to rest before you start the griddle, but I’d think that any recipe for which the resting time was defined as the time it took to get to church, make your Shrove Tuesday confession and get back again must have been pretty imprecise. For one thing, the resting time would vary depending on how much pre-Lent partying you’d indulged in.
So there you have it: pancake races, a centuries-old Shrove-tide revelry. Meet you at the finish line. I’ll bring the maple syrup.