From Otzi the Iceman to Cork’s Liberty Grill, pancakes have a long, glorious, and very tasty history, writes Robert Hume.
“They must be savoured without hurry…ideally in dressing gown and slippers… maybe even in bed, and preferably in excess, just to the brink of nausea” – Ken Albala (Pancake. A Global History)
Whether you prefer yours oozing with good old lemon juice and sugar, or perhaps care for something a little different this Pancake Tuesday, such as Baileys cheesecake filling, there are oodles of flavours to choose from.
In their two London outlets, Mac & Wild serve a truly Scottish delicacy: a battered Mars bar pancake; while a favourite from Sweden is made with pork blood. Or why not dip into Miss Parloa’s New Cookbook (1881), which includes a recipe for a pancake made with snow?
Call them what you will — blinis, injera, dosas, okonomiyaki, or Dutch babies — the proverbially flat pancake is one of the world’s oldest foods.
The last meal that was eaten by Ötzi the Iceman, the Neolithic hunter discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991, included ground wheat. The bits of charcoal he munched with it, some 5,300 years ago, suggest that he had digested a pancake, cooked over an open fire.
The ancient Greeks gorged themselves with pancakes, which they would load with honey to sweeten them; while on street corners during the “Feast of the Ovens”, the Romans sold “Alita Dolcia” — hot, flat sweets made from milk, flour, egg and spices.
In medieval times the Church required total abstinence from meat and dairy produce during Lent. Shrove Tuesday became an opportunity not only to confess one’s sins (shrive), but wolf down foods in one last buttery fling.
The first three pancakes cooked were marked with a cross, sprinkled with salt and set aside to ward off evil spirits. While the poor made theirs with flour, eggs and lard, the rich enjoyed “the food of angels”, a crisp pancake, served with finely grated sugar and spiced wine.
Lady Elinor Fettiplace, who lived during Shakespeare’s time, recorded in her recipe notebook her preference for pancakes filled with dry-fruit paste and flavoured with cinnamon, rosewater, sherry, and apples. Specimens with mustard are mentioned by Touchstone in As You Like It.
The Pancake Bell
Thames boatman, John Taylor, wrote in 1620 that by 11 o’clock on Shrove Tuesday morning a bell called the Pancake Bell was rung. It was meant to summon parishioners to church to confess. But the sound of it made thousands of people “distracted, and forgetful of either manners or humanities…”
Cooked in a long-handled pan over a fire, pancakes at this time were a tad thicker than the modern pancake, and according to Taylor, contained “magicall inchantments”.
“The ignorant people doe devour them very greedily.” It wasn’t until the influence of French cooking in the 18th century that pancakes (crêpes) became the slender, transluscent comfort food we know today.
"In 1935, Vogue told its readers that pancakes are “not worth eating at all unless they are of paper thinness and succulent tenderness”.
By the 1950s pancake houses had spread the pancake craze across USA.
In Ireland girls were traditionally given an afternoon off to make their batter.
The eldest girl, explains author Bridget Haggerty, would be given the honour of tossing the first pancake. If she could toss it and collect it back into the pan it was said she’d be married within the year.
But if it burned and didn’t turn, or it stuck to the ceiling or flopped onto the floor, horrors awaited: She would remain single for another year.
When the first pancake was being made, some mothers dropped their wedding ring into the batter. The person who received the piece containing the ring would be happily married within a year.
What a whopper…
The world’s biggest pancake was cooked up by the Co-op in Rochdale in 1994. The monster, as big as a fair-sized yacht, measured 15.01m in diameter, 2.5cm thick, and weighed 3 tonnes (6,614lb), more than your average hippopotamus.
Pancake chefs had to bring in cranes to flip it over. A pancake today typically contains around 250-300 calories, whereas the Lancashire beast had an estimated 2m calories. Judges deemed it “very edible”.
… and what a tosser!
Dominic (“Mike”) Cuzzacrea holds the current world record for the highest pancake toss. He flung a pancake 31ft 1in into the air at the Walden Galleria Mall in Cheektowaga in New York, 2010.
No stranger to pancakes, in 1999 Mike had completed a marathon at Niagara Falls in a time of 3 hours, 2 minutes, and 27 seconds, tossing a pancake once every 1.8 seconds, in the wind and rain, for the duration of the race.
The day judges flipped
The first pancake race was held at Olney, Buckinghamshire in 1445, and is now an international event, with women coming over from Kansas to compete.
Tradition says it originated when a harassed housewife, on hearing the shriving bell ring early, dashed to the church wearing her apron and headscarf, still clutching her frying pan and tossing her pancake.
Egged on by hundreds of spectators, the first woman to complete the 379m receives a special prayer book and a kiss from the bell ringer.
Bridget Haggerty recounts how as children in Ireland: “We loved watching the pancake races. Usually the contestants were housewives. Each of them carried a skillet that contained a large, very thin pancake.
"The idea was for the women to run to the finish line, tossing the pancakes as they ran. It was hilarious.”
However, immediately before the St Alban’s competition was about to begin in 2010, tourism manager, Charles Baker, told a disappointed crowd that because of that morning’s rainfall, and to comply with health and safety regulations, all competitors had to walk, not run, in case they slipped. Many onlookers began booing.
Three competitors were disqualified for not following the new “wet-weather” rules. One of them, David Emery (34), said it was “mad”, adding: “I have been disqualified from a running race for running.”
The most deluxe pancake available in Cork today is probably that at the Liberty Grill. “American style”, with bacon and maple, it will set you back €7.80.
A snip compared to that gracing the menu at Radisson Blu’s Opus One restaurant, Manchester, in 2014, where fine diners had to fork out a sizzling £800 (€906) — although, to be fair, that did include a glass of Dom Perignon champagne.
Hotel manager Stephen Miles came up with the idea: “I just thought it’s a bit of fun for pancake day, rather than the boring lemon and sugar”.
His head chef, Matt Downes, delicately stacked pancakes flavoured with beetroot and chive between layers of smoked salmon, lobster and mussels, before topping off the creation with a cream cheese, hollandaise sauce and beluga caviar swirl.
Despite the lush fillings, the pancakes themselves still retained a traditional base made from egg, flour and milk.
Although one businessman took the pancake plunge, waiters were not exactly run off their feet with orders. “There are no plans to repeat the event”, Radisson spokesperson, Angela Cano O’Neil, tells me. Mmm. Wonder why?
Boring old lemon and sugar for me any day.