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English-style pancakes with lemon and sugar, traditional for Shrove Tuesday

When is Pancake Day in 2024? | The history of Pancake Day

English-style pancakes with lemon and sugar, traditional for Shrove Tuesday | Image:

What day is Shrove Tuesday?

The ‘shrove’ in Shrove Tuesday comes from the word ‘shrive’ which means ‘absolve’, so the day is intended to be as much about the admission of sins and absolution as it is about eating cooked batter.

Shrove Tuesday is marked annually as the day before Ash Wednesday. It comes from the word 'shrive' which means to absolve and is seen as an opportunity to confess to sins before the beginning of Lent.

Colloquially known as Pancake Day, the celebration falls exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday. Therefore, next year Shrove Tuesday is 13th February 2024!

The history of Shrove Tuesday

Everyone knows that around the end of winter/beginning of spring, a Tuesday is given over to making and eating pancakes, a perfect blend of eggs, flour and milk, seasoned with a pinch of salt and fried in butter, flipped (insert disaster here) and served with a sweet topping. And it would seem that we have the Romans to thank for the recipe. It first appeared in “Apicius” (also known as “De re culinarian” or “De re coquinaria” which means ‘on the subject of cooking’) around the 1st century and has pretty much remained unchanged to the present. Save a quite remarkable deviation in a book published in London in 1737.

The title is a little long, 'The whole duty of a woman, or, an infallible guide to the fair sex: containing rules, directions, and observations, for their conduct and behaviour through all ages and circumstances of life, as virgins, wives, or widows: with rules and receipts in every kind of cookery'. Within, the unknown author, suggests a recipe of eighteen egg yolks, cream and wine. By way of recompense to this projected abomination she (or he) also published the first-ever recipe for Yorkshire Pudding or Dripping Pudding as it’s called here. Dripping Pudding was first called ‘Yorkshire’ Pudding twelve years later in 'The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple', by Hannah Glasse, who lived her entire life in London…

Why do we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?

Pancake races, held up and down the UK on Shrove Tuesday, were inspired by an English housewife who, late for confession, was forced to toss pancakes as she rushed to her appointment with a priest. But the tradition of eating lots of food before the forty days of Lent is celebrated all over the world, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) for example, is based around the eating of all the rich, fattening, fun-foodstuffs on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

As for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, the previous day’s feasting is forgotten, devotees are reminded of their Christian duties by having the ash of the previous year's Easter palm trees marked on their foreheads in the shape of the cross. On the surface, this is to remind the bearer that 'you are dust, and to dust, you shall return', which is reinforced by another 39 days of self-denial. However, the origins of the pancake are pagan and, originally, had nothing to do with Lent.

In pre-Christianity, the pancake marked the start of spring, the colour, shape, even the heat, of the pancake symbolised the sun: the return of light after the dark winter months. Indeed, ‘Lent’ comes from ‘Lencten’ which is an old English/Germanic word meaning ‘lengthening’ referring to the lengthening days of spring. As for the forty-day fast, there is no specific directive in the bible to fast for forty days, so it would seem that ‘forty’ has been appropriated from the forty days/nights Jesus’ spent fasting in the wilderness. The same period of the time ancient Egyptians fasted in honour of Osiris, the god of fertility and nature, thousands of years earlier.

Ash Wednesday also has provenance in antiquity, Wednesday was the day to honour the Norse god Odin by sprinkling ashes on the forehead. But the Christian version of Ash Wednesday arguably derives from the first century when Romans’ inscribed the Tau Cross onto their foreheads as a symbol of devotion to Mithras, at about the same time as Christianity was gaining in popularity.

But these are just semantics, the fact is that on Shrove Tuesday, we eat pancakes. The only real question is what goes on top? The original recipe in Apicius suggests pepper and honey, more recently, lemon and sugar seem to be firm favourites, with savoury toppings creeping into the equation too. But if you’re eating veriohukainen or blodplättar in Scandinavia you’ll probably go for lingonberry jam, something sweet to counter the taste of the fresh blood that’s generously added to the batter. Smaklig måltid!

Pancake Day race
Teams of fours dressed up in different costumes and took in the annual Great Spitalfields Pancake Race on Shrove Tuesday | Image: Dinendra Haria /

4 Shrove Tuesday records and events

Most tosses of a single pancake

Accurately tossing a pancake just once is reason enough to get excited for many of us. However, back in February 2012, a chap named Brad Jolly did a bit better than that. The top Aussie chef managed to toss a pancake 140 times in one minute, setting a world record.

There are three factors for fast pancake tossing, according to Brad: ‘The pan, and the batter, and the chef.’ You ideally want a shallow pan that ‘doesn’t have any ridges on the lip’ and the batter should be fairly thin to create a light, delicate pancake.

You should also be patient and allow the pancake to develop a little crust before commencing the flip. And, if you fancy trying to beat the record, you should keep each toss as low as possible to save time.

1. Most pancakes tossed

It wasn’t just Brad Jolly who made 2012 a flippin’ big year for Shrove Tuesday milestones. Thanks to the University of Sheffield, another record was smashed that February – namely, the most pancakes tossed at the same time.

930 people turned up for the university’s pancake tossing event. Of these, 40 participants were sadly disqualified due to either dropping their pancakes or not managing to toss their pancakes for at least 30 seconds.

That meant 890 could be officially counted as Britain’s – and indeed the world’s – foremost tossers, smashing the previous world record of 405 simultaneously tossed pancakes.

2. The tallest stack of pancakes

The run-up to Shrove Tuesday 2016 inspired some ambitious staff at Center Parcs Sherwood Forest to stack more pancakes than have ever been stacked before. Center Parcs’ executive chef James Haywood and executive sous chef Dave Nicholls assembled a delicious tower consisting of 213 pancakes, which reached 101.8 cm – significantly higher than the previous record of 91.2 cm.

It took 45 minutes to stack the pancakes, with the critical part being the final five seconds when the tower was required to stand unsupported. Over 14 bags of flour, 700 eggs and 26 pints of milk went into the creation of the record-breaking tower, which was later divided into 35 smaller towers for guests to enjoy.

3. The great Olney pancake race

Shrove Tuesday and the days around it have long been associated with sporting events – some more violent than others. One of the less punchy traditions still going strong today is the great pancake race which takes place in the market town of Olney, Buckinghamshire.

According to local lore, the race dates back to the year 1445 and was inspired by the story of a housewife who was cooking pancakes before Lent. She realised she was late for a church service and sprinted over to church while continuing to toss a pancake in her frying pan.

The race has been run across the centuries, but not consistently. Following several periods where it fell out of favour, the race was revived – seemingly permanently – in 1948, when the vicar of Olney was doing a tidy and uncovered some old photos of pancake races from the 1920s and 30s. This inspired him to bring the custom back, and it’s been a much-loved fixture ever since, with competitors – all women, all wearing skirts, aprons and headscarves, and wielding a pancake in a pan – racing 380 metres to the church door.

Not even the coronavirus pandemic was enough to scupper the race – during the lockdown period, a solitary racer ran the route to keep the tradition going. There’s bad news if you fancy just turning up and having a go, though. You have to have lived or worked in Olney for at least three months to be eligible to don a competitor’s apron.

4. The Royal Shrovetide Football Match

Another proud Shrovetide tradition, albeit markedly more violent, takes place in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. A throwback to the days when huge, raucous ball games were a hallmark of the season, the Royal Shrovetide Football Match is a gloriously chaotic event which stretches on for several hours and sees two teams of locals compete to ‘goal’ a ball, with the opposing goals situated three miles apart.

The teams are known as the 'Up’Ards' and the 'Down’Ards', in reference to whether the members were born north or south of Henmore Brook, which crosses the town. There’s no limit to how many can play and the ball is generally passed via rugby-like scrums. This amounts to hundreds of people shoving, pushing, pulling, grappling and generally getting tangled up in a sweating, shouting mass of humanity.

Local shops and other establishments board up their windows in anticipation of the merry violence that will unfold, and injuries are commonplace. Speaking in 2023 about his experiences, one local veteran player recounted how he got his foot trapped between two rocks in the river and then heard it ‘snap’ when he was pushed over.

It's even said that in 1928, the Prince of Wales – the future Edward VIII – got swept up in the scrum while attending the game, suffering a bloody nose. But how did such a madcap event come about?

The truth has been lost to time, although it’s been said that the first game erupted spontaneously many hundreds of years ago when a severed head was tossed into a crowd of spectators following an execution.