As i was making my way through London City to one of the most extensive collections of food and wine archives i happened upon a large and excited crowd gathered in Guildhall Square. On lookers spanning the perimeter of what appeared to be a race course of some sorts with a waiting horde of men donning colorful “official” looking robes, festooned in aprons and colorful chefs hats. I had happened upon the annual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Races.
Shrove Tuesday and pancakes have been synonymous since the 15th century. Shrove tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday the beginning of lent, stems from the old english word “shrive” which meant to confess all sins. Traditionally the day was spent feasting (a.k.a. Fat Tuesday) especially upon pancake recipes which used up stocks of milk, butter, sugar and eggs all of which were forbidden during the fast of lent.
As i approached the barricade to get a closer look at this peculiar gathering, the master of ceremonies began his “welcome”. Today was the annual City Of London Pancake Races, an annual tradition amongst the city Livery Companys. The announcer shared the tale of how some say it all began some 445 years earlier when a house wife in Olney England while preparing the sacred pancakes heard the church bells ringing for Shrove Tuesday Service and raced out of the house, frying pan in hand pancake
still cooking, towards the church so as not to be late. Today’s race between the city’s ancient guilds and modern livery companies was a lively and entertaining homage to that legend. Very official and regulated, racers must wear aprons, hat and gloves as well as their official guild robes. Carrying an iron skillet with pancake, they race down the course in their designated lane, stoping on the down and up to toss the pancake in the air, and once back to the finish securely placing the pan upon the table, pancake fully intact. After the extensive regulations were announced and racers welcomed, the parish pastor blessed the “racers and the tossers” (no really he said that), the runners lined up. The firing of a cannon began the first of many races, the crowd slowly coming around to cheers and encouragement, racers occasionally stumbling upon their colorful robes, dropping a toss, judges raising red flags at race violations, and excitement building with each line up of contenders.
I happened to be standing next to members of the London Basket Makers Guild, a lovely bunch who graciously shared insight and colorful commentary throughout. And one could not miss the long line at the Pancake table, where for 1 pound .50p you could indulge in your own sacred pancake (traditionally topped with a squeeze of fresh lemon and sugar). No sins to confess this early on in the odyssey and reluctant to “give up” any edible vice for Lent, i am very pleased to have stumbled upon this venerated tradition.
For an interesting look at how Shrove Tuesday / Pancake Tuesday is observed around the world, click HERE
As im still trying to figure out this fabulous new camera, my video footage of the races did not download but here is another i found on YouTube.