Batter before the fast…history delivered via a simple recipe

Mix a pancake

Stir a pancake

Pop it in the pan.

Fry the pancake,

Toss the pancake,

Catch it if you can!


A late Easter means “Pancake Day” doesn’t clash with Valentine’s…pancakes supplying a moveable feast which always seem an odd ingredient to mix with the blood-red bouquets and gold-foiled chocolates brightening that non-negotiable day celebrating lovers in the darkness of mid-February.  In theory a late start to Lent should be better received by the faithful, providing a longer period in which to recover from Christmas and the likely excesses of dried fruit and fat; mince pies, plum pudding and festive cake deliver millions of calories after hearty roast meats with their traditional greasy trimmings, not to mention the Stilton and port wine.  In reality there might be cause to bring the “fast” forward to Epiphany for those following the British Christmas!

As a child I always enjoyed eating pancakes although I thought them too simple a recipe to be able to claim the day when the ingredients had to be used up before the Lenten Fast. Being brought up as a [sort of] Roman Catholic I learnt early how Shrove Tuesday led immediately into the darkness of Ash Wednesday and a nasty time called Lent.  Decades later my research into food history confirmed the linguistic connection with lentils which, as a thinking but careful child, I’d never dared ask about knowing I’d have been called a stupid fool by my mother.  However, the lentils of Lent must be assigned their own pot for discussion another day in order to let pre-Lenten pancakes reveal something of their history, and, therefore, appreciate how rich the recipe might have been in former times, and thus their claim to be the food before the fast.

ingredients for pancakes (the flat variety as opposed to the thicker but fluffy American version, referred to as “hot cakes” by one of my Japanese students, a label echoed in a hotel in Havana on their English menu…the scene remains an example of “lost in translation” because, when my husband tried to order “hot cakes” for breakfast the puzzled waitress returned bearing a slice of warmed-up gateau):

plain flour, eggs, milk (some recipes admit this can be milk and water) pinch of salt, fat or oil for frying, plus sugar and lemon, or jam, honey or syrup for serving.

Firstly, the basic metal surface of historic frying pans would have demanded far more fat for frying than a modern non-stick utensil and eggs were often much smaller, especially if laid by pullets; a dozen eggs would make a far lower yield than our regulated “medium-size”.  Eggs have, of course, from ancient times carried cultural symbolism as well as their scientific value as representative of life and re-birth; I recall my first official encounter with diet away from cookery and biology books whilst studying “Anthropological Perspectives on Food” at university.  To my horror I discovered how, in some African tribes pregnant women were denied eggs as it was feared their unborn babies would grow to be greedy if they received this symbolic nourishment in the womb.   In European society eggs and milk have traditionally been ascribed high value as foods specially suited for invalids and infants, loaded with a perceived “digestibility and gentleness”.  On a practical note, milk soon went off without refrigeration, hence the widespread production of cheese to convert fresh milk into a controllable, portable basic foodstuff usually with a shelf-life extending over several years. In the Middle East and Asia this milk was often converted into yoghurt, perhaps due to the speed of the production process which would have suited nomadic peoples; cheeses designed for a longer life require months or years maturing in a suitable environment.  There is an entire history to the finely-milled wheat flour which we probably take for granted as a cheap store-cupboard basic; those plump 1.5kg paper bags waiting to be re-formed into all manner of carbohydrate-laden savouries and sweets, as well as our present-day understanding of “pancakes” in their flat and puffed-up manifestations.  Medieval peasant populations for whom the Christian Church was as much the law as their Lord of the Manor and monarch, would have regarded fine wheat flour as a high- status desirable, most likely limited to the banquets of their “betters”.  The fact that impoverished peasants would queue at their Master’s back door to receive the “trencher” bread plates on which quantities of meat and gravy had been served at banquets for the already well-fed, must surely reveal levels of hunger as well as any devotion to the niceties of a social order in which these, albeit used, edible utensils were eagerly accepted as valuable gifts.  Grain was the European staple before the arrival of potatoes from the New World, with both wheat and barley featuring in ancient “frumenty” puddings, although these stodgy concoctions were special-occasion dishes too.  On the subject of staple crops, the Romans had, in fact, introduced rice as they marched across Europe but the necessity for flooded fields limited its production to suitable areas; in Britain rice was a foreign import which did find its way into milk puddings presented as part of the huge menu served at Medieval banquets.  Researching food in history reveals feasting on a scale which even present-day consumers would find OTT, but it’s crucial to appreciate how the participants at the feast belonged to particular, limited social groups; unlike the feasting, fasting was a shared experience imposed on the entire community, although how much those existing on an impoverished diet would notice the restrictions is another matter, given their limited food choices.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 This all-too-brief brief analysis represents a mere crumb in the history surrounding pancake ingredients but, hopefully, serves to assist in laying the foundations for an understanding of how the basics required to form batter were recognised as “high status” foods and thus a target for those setting down religious law.

As for the simple lemon and sugar topping; these ingredients definitely belong to the era of trade and imperial conquest; sea voyages brought citrus fruit while imperial plantations supplied the cheap sugar which kept the Victorian working class topped up with a regular supply of hot sweetened tea.  At the same time the mass publication of cook books for the middle classes propagated the perceived need for a vast array of sugary cakes and bakes to accompany their afternoon tea; this baking tradition was a continuation of the consumption of spicy and fruity treats which had once been limited to travelling fairs, accessible only on feast days and “Holy Days”.  Oranges and lemons, although exotic, were more transportable than many other fruit; being colourful and tangy must have added to their appeal in the centuries before any mention of Vitamin C and health-giving properties.  The history of lemons in Britain introduces them as an expensive treasure, worthy for presentation to a monarch, whilst the oranges carried by Nell Gwynn probably helped carry her name and reputation into the future.

Thus the mixing and frying of a simple batter provides a bigger platter on which the history of food may be served.  The present-day habit of supermarkets to present a “Pancake Day” shelf display suggests that maple syrup was always there at the family celebration…golden syrup maybe, but not this imported product now so beloved of those seeking “clean eating”.  Maple syrup is definitely an import from “across the pond” which might have been found in specialised grocer’s stores before they all closed down with the expansion of supermarkets.  There’s a chapter to write on this which is in my notebook; from an anthropological, political and environmental viewpoint, maple syrup has buckets to offer the food historian and scientist.  In reality no ingredient should be disregarded, from the fine white wheat flour which represents what “flour” is for most consumers to the pinch of salt and the sprinkling of sugar.


Last week I decided to experiment with “gram flour” to create savoury pancakes; exploring the local Gurkha grocery store for Nepalese tea I had spotted a colourful bag containing a half kilo of these finely-milled chick peas.  A small quantity of gram flour, olive oil and cold tap water whisked together produced a wonderfully light crispy pancake layer on which to lay various vegetables fried gently in olive oil…a delicious meal which didn’t require any eggs or dairy ingredients, and certainly a long way from the egg, milk and butter pancakes of Shrove Tuesday.  With gram flour boasting its gluten-free credentials I would dare to suggest that these pancakes can feature in the Lenten diet without breaking any fasting rules….except that which tries to stop the enjoyment of food within the bleakness of religious austerity.

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