Shrove Tuesday has always been a day of revelry and gluttony, the last day of feast and freedom before forty days of fasting. It was generally agreed throughout the pre-reformation period that such revelries should be allowed in order that a person might let of steam before a long period of religious contemplation, a tradition which continued until the Puritans put a stop to all forms of revelry and silliness. Of course, the tradition of feasting before a period of fasting had a practical purpose too, as rich foods such as butter, cream, eggs and milk would go to waste if they were not otherwise used up. Amongst a great many other delicious foodstuffs, pancakes would be mixed up to use up any remaining butter, cream and eggs, which were forbidden foods during lent. A seventeenth century account, penned in 1620 by the poet John Taylor, describes, with great distaste, the typical Shrove Tuesday revelries;
Always before Lent there comes waddling a fat gross bursten-gutted groom, called Shrove-Tuesday…he devours more flesh in fourteen hours, than this whole kingdom doth (or at the least should do) in six weeks after… there is a bell rung, called the pancake bell, the sound whereof makes thousands of people distracted, and forgetful either of manner or humanity : Then there is a thing called wheaten flour, which the sulphery necromatic cooks do mingle with water, eggs, spice, and other tragical magical enchantments, and then they put it by little and little into a frying-pan of boiling suet, where it makes a confused dismal hissing like the Lernean snakes in the reeds of Acheron, Styx or Phlegethon) until at last by the skill of the cook, it is transformed into the form of a flap-jack, which in our translation is called a pancake.
Although the tradition of feasting to excess on Shrove Tuesday has pretty much died out, the pancake legacy lives on. In our household Shrove Tuesday has always been quite a day of celebration. As a child my Nana’s pancakes were famed throughout school, and every Pancake Day a trail of my friends would wind their way to our house to feast on delicious pancakes, slathered with a whole variety of toppings. The stacks of pancakes would quickly disappear and hungry hands grabbed at them, while excited squeals rang through the air, cheering on the contestants of the pan-table pancake-eating competition, and laughing out when some unfortunate soul dropped their pancake when it was their turn to toss.
Nowadays our Shrove Tuesday celebrations are not nearly as vibrant, but I always make the effort to cook up a stack of pancakes, ready to serve at tea time. Never one to miss an opportunity to experiment with historic recipes, this year I dug out the oldest pancake recipe I could find, this one dating back to 1585, and had a go.
To make Pancakes – From The Good Huswifes Jewel, Thomas Dawson (1585)
Take new thicke Creame a pine, foure or five yolks of egs, a good handful of flower and two or three spoonefuls of ale, strain them together into a faire platter, and season it with a good handfull of sugar, a spooneful of synamon, and a little Ginger: then take a friing pan, and put in a litle peece of Butter, as big as your thumbe, and when it is molten brown, cast it out of your pan, and with a ladle put to the further side of your pan some of your stuffe, and hold your pan …, so that your stuffe may run abroad over all the pan as thin as may be: then set it to the fire, and let the fyre be verie soft, and when the one side is baked, then turn the other, and bake them as dry as ye can without burning.
After adjusting the quantities a little (1pint of cream is far too much liquid for ‘a handful’ of flour, and equal quantities of flour and sugar is more than excessive for the modern palate!), the outcome was a velvety soft and extremely delicious pancake, although they were such delicate little things that it was a real struggle to flip them and very few of them came out of the pan in one piece. I found that the pancakes flipped far more willingly when cooked over a low heat, as per the original recipe, but for a longer period of time than modern recipes suggest. Interestingly the beer adds a lovely depth of flavour and complements the spices perfectly, although I would imagine the original recpe used beer as it was safer than water at the time.
After a little more tweaking, adding a couple of egg whites to increase the pancakes structural integrity, I came up with this recipe. Perhaps they are more trouble than they’re worth, but they really are very nice! So why not try some sixteenth century pancakes for your Shrove Tuesday feast!