Pancake Day Races on Shrove Tuesday: A Bizarre British Custom (Plus English-Style Pancake Recipe)
Whilst other countries celebrate Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, with extravagant and exotic parades, here in England people race around towns and villages wielding frying pans that hold pancakes. The objective is to be the first to reach the finishing line after fulfilling the rule about tossing the pancakes several times. 'Why?' you may wonder. Read on...
What Is Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day?
- Shrove Tuesday is a movable feast in the Christian liturgical calendar. It is the day preceding Ash Wednesday, the start of the 40 days of Lent.
- Lent marks the period when, according to the New Testament, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights to fast, be tempted by the Devil, and contemplate his fate.
- England is nowadays a predominantly secular society, but rewind several hundred years to when the land was Roman Catholic and deeply religious. This was a time when England devoutly observed all Christian Holy Days.
- In observance of Lent, the people fasted on a simple diet for the 40-day period before Easter.
- Before the fast began, everyone used up all of the rich foods in their store cupboards—including eggs and fats (presumably to avoid temptation). Along with flour, eggs and fat are the essential ingredients of pancakes. Voila!
- Replete with pancakes, people throughout England attended church to be ‘shrived’; i.e., forgiven for their sins. After which they went on an en masse diet for 40 days.
The word 'shrove' is the past tense of the verb 'to shrive', which means to absolve.
The Very First Pancake Day Race
Legend has it that on a Shrove Tuesday in the 14th century, a housewife in the village of Olney, in the county of Buckinghamshire, was in the process for frying pancakes when she heard the toll of the church bell summoning the congregation. Anxious not to miss the service, she ran down the street, frying pan in hand and tossing her pancake to prevent it from burning. To this day, the Olney Pancake Day race is run by local housewives. It is the most famous Pancake Day race of the many held throughout England.
Dates on Which Shrove Tuesday Falls
Now Make Your English-Style Pancake
Back in the days if my youth, pancakes were, on the whole, eaten in England only on Shrove Tuesday. Crepes Suzette, a posher take on a pancake, were available in a few upmarket restaurants, and in recent years a few pancake cafes have sprung up in cities and larger towns. But in many families, including my own, pancakes are still only eaten on pancake day. I have been making pancakes for my family for over 40 years—and eating them for much longer. I can't remember a Shrove Tuesday that has passed without my having enjoyed these traditional and fun treats.
The pancakes usually eaten in England on Pancake Day are quite thin and often crispy around the edge—more like a crepe than the thicker pancakes often eaten in the United States and Canada.
The secrets of a good pancake are to let the batter stand for at least half an hour before cooking and to get the pan smoking hot with a thin coating of fat. Butter is commonly used nowadays, but my mother always used lard.
- 100g plain flour
- 2 large eggs
- 300 ml milk
- A very small quantity of fat of choice for greasing the pan; less is more. I use an equal mix of butter and vegetable oil (to prevent the butter from burning). My mother always used lard.
- Whisk the flour and eggs until smooth.
- Whisk in the milk.
- The batter should be a consistency that coats the back of a spoon. If it is too thick, whisk in a little more milk (some people use vegetable oil—not me!).
- Leave to stand for half an hour.
- Lightly grease a frying pan or crepe pan with your chosen fat and heat on a hob until smoking hot.
- Pour in a thin layer of pancake batter (just enough to coat the pan) and cook until the batter forms bubbles on the top and is lightly browned underneath (shouldn't take more than 1 minute).
- Flip (or toss!) the pancake. (This was the fun part when I was a child—watching my mother attempting to toss the pancake!) Cook the other side until lightly browned.
- Continue to fry pancakes until all of the batter is used. If necessary, add a little more fat to the pan before pouring in the batter.
- The debate rages about what to serve with pancakes. I veer towards the traditional lemon juice with a sprinkling of caster sugar. But warm, lightly stewed apples, sweetened and flavoured with cinnamon, served with a dollop of creme fraiche comes a close second. You might also use orange juice instead of lemon juice.
Freezing Pancakes for the Future
I serve the pancakes immediately to my eagerly anticipating family. You can, should you wish, layer them between baking parchment and when cold wrap in clingfilm and store the stack in the freezer for up to two months. But why would you?
© 2019 GlenR