Have a flipping great pancake day

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By Ros Stewart

Whether you smother them in chocolate spread, make a meal of it with bacon and maple syrup or stack them high with whipped cream and berries, there’s a pancake topping for everyone. Ros Stewart takes a look at our Shrovetide traditions.

This year Shrove Tuesday is on 16 February, as ever six weeks before Easter. It has its origins in the Christian calendar where it marks the last day before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Fasting and feasting has its place in many world religions and Christianity is no different.

'Did you know that the festival of Mardi Gras originates from Shrove Tuesday celebrations?'

During Lent, Christians remember the time Jesus spent in the desert and they observe it in prayer and by eating simple food such as bread and vegetables, cutting out more luxurious items including eggs and milk. Shrove Tuesday is the last opportunity to use up these foods until Easter, hence the need for a big fatty fry-up.

In some countries this is taken even further and people enjoy a carnival as a final celebration before the austerity of Lent. Did you know that the festival of Mardi Gras (meaning ‘fat Tuesday’ in French) originates from this celebration?

Time to flip

More often called Pancake Day by enthusiastic children of all ages, traditional English pancakes are made with a batter consisting of flour, eggs and milk. They’re cooked in a hot frying pan in a thin layer and flipped over to cook the other side.

Children practising tossing pancakes before a race
Ready steady …. children practising for a pancake race in Wimborne, Dorset. | Carolyn Jenkins/Alamy Live News

Successful flipping is a source of much pride in those who’ve perfected the technique, or results in disaster and a messy kitchen for those who haven’t quite got the hang of it! Using a few simple ingredients and some basic kitchen equipment, it’s a fun way to pass an hour or two in our stay-at-home times.

Top tips for success include: a hot (but not too hot) pan with an even base, space to flip, and making sure none is stuck to the pan before your flipping attempt – and accept that the first one never works!

Ready, steady … run

The name Shrove Tuesday derives from the word ‘shrive’ which means to be absolved from sin. In the Middle Ages, Christians would be called to church to confess their sins by a special bell at 11am on Shrove Tuesday. The bell came to be known as the ‘pancake bell’ and if you listen carefully you might still hear it rung today.

Women in aprons and scarves running with frying pans down high street in Olney
First grab your frying pan – the Olney pancake race is the oldest in the world. | Geoffrey Robinson / Alamy Stock Photo

The pancake bell is responsible for the English tradition of pancake races, where contestants run around a course whilst holding a frying pan and flipping a pancake at the same time.

The story goes that in 1445 a woman in Olney in Buckinghamshire was still making her pancakes when she heard the shriving bell ring, so she ran to the church carrying her frying pan. In non-lockdown years, a race is held in Olney to commemorate this and in keeping with tradition it’s for ladies only with the rules stating they must wear a headscarf and apron.

Frantic football

A more energetic (and dangerous!) tradition is Shrovetide football. As Lent is a period of abstinence, many took the opportunity for merriment in the days preceding it and indulged in a game of football.

Some matches still take place today, such as the Atherstone ball game in Warwickshire and Sedgefield ball game in County Durham. But the most famous one is the Royal Shrovetide football match in Ashbourne in Derbyshire which dates from 1667, possibly even earlier.

'The goals are millstones placed three miles apart, so most of the play takes place in the town and surrounding fields!'

But this isn’t football as you’d usually recognise it, with a carefully manicured pitch and pristine white goals. The ball is rarely kicked and instead is usually carried or thrown, resulting in the game resembling rugby rather than football. The goals are millstones and are placed three miles apart, so most of the play takes place in the town and surrounding fields!

It’s played from 2-10pm on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday between two teams – those born in the north of the town, the Up’Ards and those born in the south, the Down’Ards.

Clock and crowd ready to play Shrovetide football in Ashbourne, Derbyshire
The traditional Ashbourne football match brings the traffic to a standstill | Carolyn Jenkins/Alamy Live News

With no limit on the number of players and very few rules (unnecessary violence is frowned on!), it’s a riotous affair! But it’s a huge and popular event in the social calendar of the town drawing spectators from far and wide.

It became ‘royal’ in 1928 when the Prince of Wales (later King Edward Vlll) ‘turned-up’ (started the game) by throwing the ball into play. Prince Charles also enjoyed this honour in 2003.

Unfortunately, many Shrovetide traditions can’t take place this year, but they’re so rooted in local tradition that they’ll certainly be back when public gatherings can take place again. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of time to practise your pancake flipping skills ready for next year’s races.

Four pans with pancakes held by separate arms of people ready to toss them
Getting ready for pancake race Carolyn Jenkins/Alamy Live News