Whether you call it Pancake Day, Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Western Christian churches view it as a day to cleanse the soul, as well as a chance to indulge before the fasting of Lent.
The term Shrove Tuesday comes about as Christians saw the day as a last-minute opportunity to confess and cleanse their souls before Lent, a ritual known as ‘shriving’. Traditionally, they would eschew fat, eggs and milk during Lent, so Shrove Tuesday was an opportunity to indulge in all three, while at the same time clearing out the store cupboard of temptations.
An orgy of pancake-eating may seem a little tame next to the extravagant celebrations, wild partying and gorgeous costumes of the Rio and Venice carnivals, both events that celebrate Mardi Gras. But this modest British ritual is an enjoyable milestone in the long, grey days of winter and a clear sign that we are moving inexorably towards Easter, and all the signs of renewal: longer days, snowdrops and daffodils, green shoots, spring birdsong.
This year, Shrove Tuesday occurs in the middle of a lockdown, so unfortunately we won’t be able to share our largesse with friends and neighbours. But make the time to enjoy a perfect pancake, and remember you can still enjoy finessing your flipping skills, even if you don’t have an appreciative audience.
The traditional British toppings are butter, or sugar and lemon, but you can also experiment with maple syrup, chocolate spread or bananas and ice cream (inevitably a hit with youngsters). If you want a more sophisticated option, try out a crêpe suzette, which is a French classic. Combine caster sugar, orange zest, orange juice and butter to form a syrupy, caramelised sauce. Pour this over the folded pancakes, then add a generous splash of orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier, to the saucepan and ignite by turning up the gas and tilting the pan. The flaming liqueur is then poured over the pancakes – a satisfyingly theatrical and flamboyant gesture, even if you’re the only one to observe it.