In praise of pancakes
There is one seasonal event in February that sets my heart racing. It represents the first day of scheduled, communal gluttony following the Christmas and New Year revelries, when we have endured around 6 weeks of short days, cold weather, grey skies and most of us are feeling pretty gloomy.
It is of course Pancake Day. Now this is officially Shrove Tuesday, which according to the Christian tradition is the time when people are ‘shriven’ or confess to their sins. It is immediately followed by Ash Wednesday and the fast of Lent, leading to Easter. So Pancake Day represents the last chance to binge before austerity takes over. What follows the day after is down to personal choice.
I love pancakes; they are the perfect comfort food for this time of year. Warm, fatty and sticky – marvellous. And what variety exists – in France buckwheat galettes filled with mushrooms and cheese are my all-time favourites, to be followed by wafer thin crepes. I remember having blueberry hot cakes for the first time in my youth somewhere in Oregon during an epic Greyhound bus trip across the USA. A Danish friend used to insist that they had to be made with self-raising flour. We all know about Russian blinis, but how many of you have had a ‘syrnicki’? – essentially a pancake with soft cheese added to the batter before cooking, utterly scrumptious. And if you prefer savoury and don’t fancy a galette, is there anything tastier than a masala dosa and the thrill as it arrives at your table in all its curved elegance?
There are many traditions associated with pancakes, and I particularly like the sound of the one that has taken place in Olney, Buckinghamshire for well over 500 years. The story goes that in 1445 on Shrove Tuesday, the “Shriving Bell” rang out to signal the start of the Shriving church service. On hearing the bell a local housewife, who had been cooking pancakes in anticipation of the beginning of Lent, ran to the church, frying pan still in hand, tossing the pancake to prevent it from burning, still dressed in her kitchen apron and headscarf. The women of Olney recreate this race every Shrove Tuesday by running from the market place to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, a distance of about 380 metres. The traditional prize is a kiss from the verger. Whether this acts as an incentive to winning is unknown.
All that remains to decide is the knotty problem of turning your pancake. Are you a flipper or a tosser? Do you spurn the fish slice you are proffered and insist that a flick of the wrist is all that is needed? My mother was of that ilk – we used to sit and cheer as she coolly and expertly tossed each pancake perfectly.
Finally, I am pleased to report that my son ensures that he eats as many pancakes with as many people as possible each Shrove Tuesday – clearly a chip off the old block.