Pancakes, according to the social historian Dorothy Hartley, exhibit national characteristics. “Abroad,” she explained in her evergreen Food in England, “pancakes are usually open and piled up together. In England our pancakes are symbols of our insular detachment, for each is rolled up by itself, aloof, with its own small slice of lemon.” This is my childhood memory of them, rolled up with lemon and sugar on Pancake Day, with the braver members of the family having a go at tossing their own. English pancakes are individualists, too, in the company they keep.
The culinary guide of my early aspirations as a host, Raymond Blanc’s lovely Cooking for Friends, surprised me with a recipe for Crêpes Franc-Comtoises (helpfully glossed as ham and mushroom pancakes). I had no idea that pancakes ever had another filling (plus a luxurious robe of cream and Gruyère), nor that you could serve them not just to the family but to guests.
The sociable pile of pancakes was not unknown on this side of the Channel, though the idea never really caught on. Hannah Glasse’s 18th-century bestseller The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy has several pancake recipes, including one for a “Quire of Paper” (“quire” is a bookbinder’s term for a stack of 24 or 25 sheets). The batter was for high living – made with cream rather than milk, and then diluted with those Georgian tastes, sack (similar to sherry) and orange flower water, so that it might “run as thin as possible”. The paper-thin pancakes would be stacked with sprinkled sugar and perhaps grated nutmeg, then cut into slices: a literal manifestation of the name pancake.
Glasse offers six recipe variants, some spiced and sweetened, in a chapter “For Lent, or a Fast Dinner”. “Fast”, it is clear from her dairy, fish and seafood recipes, simply means “meatless”. It suggests that the older practice of using up “white meats” (eggs and dairy) in the approach to Ash Wednesday had already broken down. Before the Reformation, the Lent fast, modelled on Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness, meant a strictly vegan diet (with the exception of fish). It was mostly honoured, though with grumbles and workarounds for those who could afford it, such as “eggs” made from almonds, or classing meaty porpoise as fish. Fasting had a spiritual job of purification, penance and charity, but it also enforced an essential abstinence from eating the few livestock that had made it through the winter, which needed to be left to breed and feed their young. If you ate mutton in February and March, there would be no Easter lamb.
Throughout the dairying Northern Hemisphere, then, Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, was the time for a last hurrah in preparation for Lent, with waffles, blini, crêpes, wafers, fritters, and, as the French settlers introduced to Louisiana, “king cake”. Doughnuts (fried in lard) were the preference of Germans, Americans and, writes the Georgian folklorist William Hone, the families of Baldock in Hertfordshire. In England, the now-standard egg, milk and flour recipe has flattened the other regional variations – though not, happily, the still popular, thicker Welsh crempog (traditionally made with buttermilk) and Scots pancakes. There are excellent oatmeal pancake traditions from Scotland, Staffordshire and the northern counties. In Yorkshire and Lancashire they were known as “havercakes”, so homey that no recipes survive. My sister and I recently spent a happy day gorging on different versions, with butter and honey, as we figured out a recipe for my book.
The Reformation in England put the population at odds with such popish ideas as abstinence from food, games and sex. But the Lent fast did not disappear entirely until methods of husbandry enabled farmers to keep alive more livestock over winter. Today, giving the environment even just 40 days’ worth of recovery from the pressures of livestock farming seems as essential as it is unlikely to happen. Like many of the traditions of the church year, we have kept the Shrove Tuesday feast of pancakes but, insular and detached as we are, have uncoupled them from the Lent fast.
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?