Guest column: Why Shrove Tuesday means it’s pancake time

Medieval kitchen at Gainsborough Old Hall. Picture: Rich Hines
Medieval kitchen at Gainsborough Old Hall. Picture: Rich Hines

For many of us next week is half term and this year, both Valentine’s Day and Shove Tuesday fall within it.

As I wrote about the origins of St Valentine last year let us have a look at why we try and eat as many pancakes as we physically can on Shrove Tuesday.

Shrove Tuesday is the day in February or March immediately preceding Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent).

In other countries it is also called Mardi Gras, meaning ‘eat Tuesday’ in French.

The expression ‘Shrove Tuesday’ comes from the word shrive, meaning ‘absolve/go to confession’.

Shrove Tuesday is observed by many Christians who ‘make a special point of self-examination, of considering what wrongs they need to repent, and what amendments of life or areas of spiritual growth they especially need to ask God’s help in dealing with.’

Being the last day before Shrovetide people would have used up all the fattening ingredients in the house before Lent, so that people were ready to fast during Lent.

The fattening ingredients that most people had in their houses were eggs and milk.

A very simple recipe to use up these ingredients was to combine them with some flour and make pancakes.

The tradition of marking the start of Lent has been documented for centuries.

Aelfric of Eynsham’s ‘Ecclesiastical Institutes’ from around 1000 AD states: “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do.”

The tradition of ‘pancake races’ is said to have originated in 1445 when a housewife from Olney in Buckinghamshire, was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing for the service.

She raced out of the house to church while still carrying her frying pan and pancake, tossing it to prevent it from burning.

The Olney pancake race takes place to this day with each contestant has a frying pan containing a hot pancake.

She must toss it three times during the race.

The first woman to complete the course and arrive at the church, serve her pancake to the bellringer and be kissed by him, is the winner.

Another tradition from Scarborough is that everyone assembles on the promenade to skip.

Long ropes are stretched across the road and there maybe be 10 or more people skipping on one rope.

The origins of this custom is not known but skipping was once a magical game, associated with the sowing and spouting of seeds which may have been played on barrows (burial mounds) during the Middle Ages.

Gainsborugh Old Hall is open throughout half-term with our award winning iGuides and dressing up boxes to keep the children entertained.

Don’t forget you don’t need to be visiting the hall to use the coffee shop, so pop in and try the homemade cakes then next time you are in town.