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An alternative Pancake Day

Categories: Expert guidance

Regular blogger Ed Smith explores Shrove Tuesday traditions around the world

I think we all know (but some perhaps choose to ignore) that Pancake Day exists as part of the Christian calendar. The more traditional name in the UK, of course, is Shrove Tuesday, and it marks the last day of feasting before the period of fasting required for Lent.

The convention of flipping pancakes on this day came about as a way of using up things like milk, butter and eggs, which, along with meats and fish, are the kinds of foods restricted in the 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy or ‘Maundy’ Thursday. That period commemorates the time Jesus Christ spent fasting in the wilderness. Those of you familiar with the story will know that he was crucified on the Friday, buried, and then rose again on the Sunday—the event celebrated as the culmination of Easter.

I doubt many people really clear the cupboards in time for Lent these days, but I imagine most of us will eat a pancake or two. There will certainly be numerous pancake recipes in the papers, and on the internet and TV over the next couple of days.*

But by sticking to our pancake tradition, we could well be missing a trick—Shrove Tuesday (or the reason for it) is marked around the world in different ways and by a number of tempting, deliciously glutinous foods.

Fat Tuesday
Though places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia follow our flipping lead, Catholic countries mark the period Mardi Gras (which is French for ‘Fat Tuesday’) with alternative treats, though the premise is generally the same: use up rich, feasting foods.

Belgium, Portugal and Germany use up their flour, butter and sugar by frying up doughnuts. In America’s Deep South, there are doughnuts (or donuts) too, but also king cake: a ring of twisted, filled dough which has evolved from the French gallete des rois.

But in reading up about the pre-Lent traditions of other cultures, I have been particularly interested in the foods cooked in two very different places: Brazil and Sweden.

You are probably aware that Brazil goes big for Fat Tuesday (I love the phrase!). Mardi Gras is the culmination of the ‘carnival’ period which itself is nominally significant, as it derives from carne vale (to ‘take away meat’ in Latin-rooted languages). At this time, there is a host of fried goods on the streets of Brazil—shrimp dumplings, sweet doughnut-type things and meat kebabs.

Sweet and sour stew
The food I remember most fondly from a trip there just before Lent, though, is mocqueca, a fish stew from the north-east of the country which is a slightly hot, sweet and sour stew made with coconut milk and red palm oil.

Scandinavian countries seem to be more about baking than frying and flipping. Denmark and Norway, for example, cook up fastelavnsbolle, which are sweet iced buns. Sweden makes something similar, semlor, which are spiced and sweet buns filled with almond paste and whipped cream. Maybe you know them as lenten buns?

I’ve become a little addicted to semlor in the last month or two (a semla is for life, not just for Shrove Tuesday) and decided to learn how to make them. I think you’ll like them too—the dough is enriched and slightly sweetened, but most interestingly is laced with ground cardamom. Once baked, the dough becomes a deliciously light, flavourful and fluffy bun. To be honest, it’s lovely on its own, but even better stuffed with almond paste and cream.

*For what it’s worth, I think there’s only one way to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and that’s with caster sugar and fresh lemon (not Jif).