LOAD OF CREPE
Today is the annual ground hog day when you will hear all the chefs across the media being interviewed about making the perfect pancake so that you can have a go at home whipping up a batter and getting that pan out for a bit of flipping. Then there is the debate as to what to eat with them, plain with a squeeze of lemon and butter or stuffed full of all sorts of fruits and sauces. If it takes a religious feast day in order to get us cooking something from scratch on the stove then I am all for it.
The background to pancake Tuesday is interesting and it was simply the using up of all the ingredients before the forty days of fasting so historical luxuries like eggs, butter and milk had to be converted into a treat that would be the last culinary hurray before all the dietary suffering of repent that was to follow during lent. Our world is so full of consumable luxuries now that I cannot imagine how a new generation would sacrifice anything at all for the sake of religion.
The word shrove derives from shrive meaning absolve, giving the term Shrovetide for this season in the Christian calendar which precedes another penitential period leading up to Easter itself. These days it is still a good excuse nonetheless to give up something even if you are not of a spiritual persuasion. Any bad habit will do.
In other Christian countries it is called Mardi Gras or literally fat Tuesday which is not the most PC of translations in the modern context. The occasion is celebrated in these places with big festivals of gorging on food and drink before the long fast begins and there are massive street parties and spectacular carnivals like in New Orleans and Brazil that go on for a few weeks sometimes. In the UK they hold bizarre pancake races.
In Ireland it was all about giving up the meat and the aulde drink. Not an easy one with booze filled St. Patrick’s Day falling smack in the middle of Lent never mind if there was a bereavement to drown sorrows over during this time. You really had to get yourself stuffed then with all the grub that gives you undue pleasure so that you will not be dancing with the devil in your afterlife.
I remember as a child rushing home from school to see my mother making the pancakes and then later getting to learn how to cook them myself as soon as I could reach up to the height of the stove. I would eat so many that there would be no appetite for dinner. It is actually a great entry point to cooking and baking for kids and many a chef started their culinary careers on this day. The first few efforts might be a disaster but eventually when you get the hang of it there is no looking back.
It was only when I went to hotel school in France that I fully realised what the thinner crepes were and especially as it was in Brittany which is the real home of these beauties. They have been making them here forever and they are part of everyday life.
The art of making their large, paper thin sweet and savoury pancakes on what can be best described as a large cooking wheel is a true technical skill that does take some practice to get anywhere near right. I actually prefer their savoury ones with them folded over containing ham, eggs and melted cheese. I am partial also to a good crepe suzette though.
Pancakes in other cultures can be small and thick but nicely aerated too. In the States I see them piled high up on peoples plates covered in syrup, fruit, jam and chocolate. That is a little too much for my liking but each to their own. In Eastern Europe they can be smaller again and called blini which you will eat salmon or caviar on. In Asia you will be familiar with the likes of Chinese duck pancakes so the concept of the frying a simple egg, flour and milk batter is as old as the hills around the world.
However you are eating yours today then just think of the poor souls in bygone years tucking into them like it was their last supper.