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Tossing Pancakes

Tossing the Pancake



Ladies pancake race on the Olney town sign


Nationally, the most famous pancake race, for women only, takes place at Olney in Buckinghamshire. It is said to have originated in 1445 when a woman heard the shriving bell while she was making her pancakes and ran to the church to confess her sins still wearing her apron and clutching her frying pan. The women who race today still wear aprons and scarves on their heads, and must toss the pancake three times during the race. The winner is the first to complete the course and arrive at the church to serve her pancake and be kissed by the bell-ringer.





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The History of Pancake Day in Devon

Shrove Tuesday, which occurs in February or March, depending on the date of Easter, is the last day before the start of Lent. In 2018 it is on Tuesday 28th February and Easter Sunday on 16th April. The word 'shrove' comes from the Middle English 'to shrive', which means to absolve of sin. Formerly, a bell was rung in churches to call people to confession at Shrovetide. Penitents received absolution for confession of their sins, before the 40 days of Lenten fasting. The tradition may be based on the Bible story, in which Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Lent is a time of reflection in preparation for the Easter feast.



English Pancakes with lemon and sugar

In some countries Shrove Tuesday is known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, when rich foods are eaten up before Lent. Some have suggested that Shrove Tuesday was originally a pagan holiday related to the changing seasons. The preparation and eating of hot round pancakes, which symbolised the Sun, were supposed to encourage the arrival of spring. Today, some people give up rich foods, or special treats like chocolate for lent, in observance of this period of penance.

In the past Shrove Tuesday provided a chance to use up foods such as eggs and dairy produce, which according to strict Christian tradition could not be eaten during Lent. A simple way to use eggs and milk is to combine them with flour to make a batter for pancakes. Frying in a pan was also a very quick way to cook.

Pieter Bruegel

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (detail), 1559

In Europe, various regional pancake recipes associated with Easter were eaten on Shrove Tuesday. An English cookery manuscript of 1430 refers to pancakes, but it was in the C17th that the recipes became popular in Britain, using a batter of flour and eggs thinned with milk, cream or water.

In 1615 Gervase Markham, an English poet and writer published The English Huswife, a book of cookery and remedies, which became a bestseller at the time. He favoured a thin pancake batter made with water, to which wine or brandy might be added to give a crisper pancake. The 1650s household accounts for Sydenham House in Marystow, Devon, mention that the Wise family had pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

As early as 1619, in Pasquil's Palin the tradition of tossing or flipping the pancakes to cook both sides was recorded when

'.... every man and maide doe take their turne. And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne'.

In the C17th and C18th, as now, it was not uncommon for recipes to be 'borrowed' from previous publications. In 1747 for example, Hannah Glasse published four recipes for pancakes in her popular book The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy. These had previously been published by another author in The Whole Duty of a Woman (1737). In fact many of Hannah Glasse's published recipes had come from other publications but she had interpreted them in a popular style which led to the success of her book.

One rich recipe used 18 egg yolks and 250 ml of cream, while another was instead made with water to give thin pancakes which were sprinkled with sugar and piled in a stack; sometimes called 'A Quire of Paper' (a quire is 24 sheets of paper).

There are other folk traditions associated with Shrove Tuesday in Devon. Mrs Bray in her book The Borders of the Tamar and Tavy (1836) gives an account of Shrove Tuesday as it was celebrated in Tavistock in 1833. It was a holiday and all the farm workers were given pancakes for supper. Everyone gathered around the fire and each had to toss their pancake before it could be eaten, even if it had fallen into the fire due to inept tossing. The event provided great entertainment for the company.

Another Devon custom associated with Lent was recorded near Bridestowe in 1852, from R.J.W. Coxhead's book Old Devon Customs (1957). The Monday evening before Shrove Tuesday was called Lentsherd Night or Dappy-Door Night, when children went around the houses in twos and threes hoping to be given eggs, flour and butter, money or pancakes as a contribution to a pre-Lenten feast on Shrove Tuesday. The children sang:

'Lent crock, give a pancake,
Or a fritter for my labour,
Or a dish of flour, or a piece of bread,
Or what you please to render.
I see by the latch,
There's something to catch;
I see by the string,
There's a good dame within,
Trap, trapping throw,
Give me my mumps* and I'll be go.

* Mumps was an old Devonshire name for a beggar.

In Ilfracombe, on Dappy-Door Night children went around the town ringing doorbells and running off. One prank was to tie a length of string to the door handle, knock on the door, then hide. When the door was opened the string would be given a pull, to startle the occupant. In Bovey Tracey, this custom was still being reported in the 1920s.

A tradition called Lentsherds (pronounced Lanshard) was popular with children in many of the villages of North Devon, with variations in different villages.

At Gittisham, in East Devon, the custom of 'tiptoeing' by the schoolchildren was observed. They marched from the school in pairs and went around the village chanting:


'Tip tip toe please give us a penny and we will go.'


Money collected was then taken to the school and shared among the children. In 1953 this event was recorded by the BBC, and at that time an 86-year-old villager could remember it as a child although its origins remain unknown.

At Chulmleigh, in North Devon, children collected broken pots for weeks before Shrovetide in preparation for the event. They would go from door to door and sing:


'Tippy tippy toe please give me a bit of pancake or I will let go'


Houses were pelted by a shower of pot sherds if the children were not been given pancakes.

One version of Lentsherd is still popular in Clovelly and was held in 2017 on 28th February. It is also called Driving the Devil into the Sea' or 'Tin Can Night'. Children drag tin cans on strings down the cobbled streets towards the sea, or make other loud noises to frighten away evil spirits before the holy season of Lent.

On Tuesday 12th February 2013, Tavistock BID organised a Pancake Day event in Tavistock Town Hall in which Year 2 students from St Rumon's Primary School enjoyed a range of pancakes prepared by local celebrity chef Peter Gorton and in 2016 the children of Bickleigh near Tiverton held pancake races at the primary school on Shrove Tuesday, two further events showing that the ancient traditions of Shrovetide still continue in Devon.


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