Nobody knows just how long people have been making and eating pancakes, but you could almost call the flat bread made by Bronze Age families, twelve thousand years ago, a pancake. Pancakes were made by grinding grains and nuts and adding water or milk. This mixture was then shaped into flattened cakes and baked on the hot stones surrounding the fire.
Shrove Tueday is when traditionally the house is cleaned of ‘fat’ and also ‘yeast’ before the Christian season of Lent leading up to Easter. [The word shrove is a past tense of the English verb "shrive," which means to obtain absolution. Shrove Tuesday, in the Christian calendar, is the day before ash wednesday, which marks the beginning of lent ,a period of fasting. When Lent was observed more rigorously than it is now, the two or three days prior to Ash Wednesday, known as Shrovetide, were celebrated by games, sports, feasting, dancing, and general merrymaking.
In Germany, Shrove Tuesday is called Fastnacht (Eve of the Fast); in Italy and other southern European countries it is called Carnival (Farewell to Meat); and in Brazil and the United States, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). Shrovetide feasts were designed to use up the food that could not be eaten during the Lenten fast. In Britain, Collop Monday was when people ate up their supplies of bacon, eggs, and meat and on Shrove Tuesday (now more generally known as Pancake Day) flour, eggs, milk, and butter were used up in the making of pancakes. According to tradition, revelry began with the ringing of the Pancake or Shriving Bell soon after midday, which was the signal for villagers to cease work and go home to make pancakes or join in the games and merrymaking. Pancake Day races are still held in parts of Britain today. In Slovenia, a 10 day carnival called Kurentovanje marks the passing of winter. As Kurent is thought to be an ancient God of hedonism, you can take a guess at the flavour of the festivities.
The Celtic calendar tells us that the second full moon after Deep Winter (usually the full moon in February) is known as Imbolc. This Midwinter celebration is the time when people turn their thoughts toward spring and celebrate the fact that winter will soon be over and the world will wake again. Candles are the most important symbols of Imbolc. During the Imbolc ritual, a central candle is lit to represent the light and warmth of spring. All those present light a candle from this central flame and the candles stay lit until the ritual is completed. The lighted candles symbolize driving away the darkness of winter and looking forward with hope to Spring. Winter is the time of year when everything is resting. Imbolc is the celebration which says ‘We are ready to wake again to the beauty of the world in Spring.’ Meat is an essential item for the Imbolc feast, and a good drink to have is apple mead.
In France the main ceremonial day for pancake eating is Candlemas on the 2nd of February. This holy day is six weeks after Christmas and is the day that Christ was presented at the temple by his mother. During this festival, French children wear masks and demand pancakes and fritters. In various parts of the country, there are different customs. In Provence, if you hold a coin in your left hand while you toss a pancake, you’ll be rich. And in Brie the first pancake (which is never very good anyway) is always given to the hen that laid the eggs that made the pancake. And it’s always regarded as bad luck to let a pancake fall on the floor while tossing it. Legend has it that Napoleon, who liked to make and eat them with Josephine, blamed the failure of his Russian campaign on one he had dropped years before at Malmaison during Candlemas.
Large or small, fat or wafer thin and made with a wide range of flours, pancakes are given different names by different peoples. There are Hungarian palacsinta, Chinese egg rolls, Jewish blintzes, Russian blini, Italian cannelloni, Swedish plattar, Mexican tortillas, American hotcakes, German pfannkucken, Norwegian lefser, Austrian nockerin, Welsh crempog and Australian pikelets: but undoubtedly the most famous of them all is the great French crepe. My favorite filling? A Sprinkling of sugar and lemon juice. I have sampled a chocolate filling at a Creperie in Vichy – but that is another story.