The history of Shrove Tuesday (including a traditional Scottish pancake recipe)

Food historian Fraser Wright takes a closer look at the history of Shrove Tuesday and provides an Old Scottish Pancake Recipe from 1755.

Published 27th Feb 2017
Updated 28 th Feb 2017

Where does the tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday come from? And for how long has this been going on?

Pancakes are now synonymous with Shrove Tuesday. Picture: Flickr

Pancakes are now synonymous with Shrove Tuesday. Picture: Michael Stern\Flickr

The popular theory goes that in the past people would make pancakes on Shrove Tuesday as a good way to use up all the remaining eggs, milk and butter (all the animal products) that were forbidden throughout lent.

However, the answer is a little more complicated than that.

How long ago was it that people really fasted according to these strict decrees that were issued throughout the middle ages? Our idea of Shrove Tuesday, or pancake day, is so different from a time when this was more about religion than a sweet treat.

We know that by the eighteenth century when Hannah Glasse published her book The Art of Cookery (1747), and it was one of the most popular books of its day, it seems this practice of using up all the butter and eggs etc. was no longer followed.


Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery. Picture: Wikimedia

For in the book there is a section dedicated to ‘Recipes for Lent’. Many people might be surprised to find there is a simple recipe for pancakes in this section.

What all these recipes for Lent have in common is not that they don’t use dairy or eggs, but that they are meat free and inexpensive to prepare. So pancakes were eaten during Lent as well.

When Hannah Glasse wrote this book, sugar was becoming cheaper and much more widely available than it had been in previous centuries.

There is no doubt that sprinkling of a little sugar helped to ensure the popularity of such a simple and pleasing confection.

Elsewhere in Europe there are similar variations on this theme of having a sweet treat on Shrove Tuesday.

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Pieter Aertszen's The Pancake Bakery, circa 1508. Picture: Wikimedia

Pieter Aertszen's The Pancake Bakery, circa 1508. Picture: Wikimedia

In Germany they eat doughnuts, in the Netherlands they have waffles, and in Russia they eat lots of blinys.

In Latin countries where they celebrate Mardi Gras and Carnival we are reminded that this day is supposed to be fun.

I like to think that our old custom of making pancakes together, and having a go at tossing them, has persisted simply because it is fun, and cheap to boot.

What we do know for certain is that pancakes have been around since time immemorial. As long as there has been some sort of meal to mix with water, and a flat stone set in a hearth we have eaten pancakes. This method of cooking on a bakestone is the most simple and primitive form of cookery - which makes it all the more beautiful as it has persisted throughout time and is still popular.

The modern incarnation of these bakestones is of course a griddle, or a girdle as it is traditionally called in Scotland. Scotland has such a rich tradition of using the girdle, producing a great variety of pancakes, bannocks, oatcakes, dropped scones and crumpets, to name a few.

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A Scottish Girdle. Picture: Pinterest

A Scottish Girdle. Picture: Pinterest

Everyone in Scotland has their own idea for what you should make on Shrove Tuesday.

If it is not dropped scones it will be crumpets, or crepes if you want to have a go at tossing them.

In The Scots Kitchen (1929), F. Marian McNeil, who is the authority on traditional Scottish food, gives two recipes for pancakes traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday.

One is called a sooty bannock. Interestingly, but not so surprising, it is made with oatmeal flour. The sooty part comes from the French word sauter, to toss, like so many other Scottish culinary terms.

The other recipe she gives is for Scots Crumpets. Scottish crumpets are quite unlike their thick and spongy English counterparts as they are thinner, and can be rolled up, and eaten with jam and butter.

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It is these crumpets which F.Marian McNeil believes John Jamieson was describing in his Dictionary of the Scottish Language (first published in 1808) when he talked about car-cakes (or care-cakes).

These are “a kind of thin cake, made of milk, meal or flour, eggs beaten up, and sugar, baked and eaten on Fastern’s E’en”.

Fastern’s E’en being the old Scots term for Shrove Tuesday and essentially means the evening before lent.

Why they were called car or care-cakes is their association with care Sunday, or Palm Sunday - giving us another occasion where people ate pancakes during lent.

The recipe I have chosen to try for this years Shrove Tuesday is quite different. It comes from the first recipe book every published in Scotland.

Elizabeth Cleland gives no fewer than nine recipes for pancakes in her book A New and Easy Method for Cookery (first published in 1755). It is her recipe for Common Pancakes which is most intriguing, as it is spiced with nutmeg, ginger and best of all, laced with brandy.

You will see below the original recipe calls for a ‘Chopin of Milk’. A Chopin is an old and defunct Scottish unit of measurement.

It is the equivalent to two Mutchkins (also obscure). A Mutchkin is the equivalent to 424ml, making a Chopin 848ml. Due to the inexact proportions given in this recipe I have created a recipe based on it.

It produces delicious, beautifully scented, and delicate crepes. As there are no eggs in the batter the texture is a little different to the crepes we are used to today. Happily they are not too far away in taste from crêpes suzette!

Elizabeth Cleland’s Recipe for ‘Common Pancakes’

Picture: Fraser Wright

Picture: Fraser Wright

"Take a Chopin of Milk, eight Spoonfuls of Flour, grated nutmeg and Ginger; beat all together with a Glass of brandy; let it stand a while, then fry them, and send them in hot with Sugar and Oranges."

I have reduced the quantities of batter as the original recipe would produce an awful lot. This recipe produces around 10 pancakes for an 20cm wide pan.

In a large baking bowl sift in 100g plain flour.

Stir in 1 tsp ginger and a very generous grating of fresh nutmeg.

Whisk in 200g milk and then 1 tbsp brandy.

You want the batter to be the consistency of double cream so you may want to add a little more milk if it is too thick.

Heat a non stick pan (ideally a crepe pan) over a medium to high heat.

When the pan is nice and hot, melt a little butter in and spread it around, making sure the entire pan is greased.

Pour in just enough batter to form a thin crepe the size of the pan by swishing the batter around to reach the edges.

How much you pour in depends on the size of your pan.

Brown it for a minute then flip it and brown it on the other side.

Transfer to a plate and repeat the process - greasing, pouring the batter, browning and flipping.

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Fraser is originally from Glasgow and lives in a wee flat in Edinburgh. He writes the food blog and wants to put Scotland on the map as a place for good food.
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