Shrove Tuesday is the day immediately preceding Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Christian season of Lent and 47 days before Easter Sunday. Shrove, which is derived from the word shrive, refers to the confession of sins in preparation for Lent, a usual practice at the time in Europe. The feast dates back to medieval times, and similar to other medieval feasts, it has pagan roots. An old Slavic pagan belief is if you consume pancakes on this day the gods of spring and fertility would fight against the evil gods of cold and darkness. The pagans pancakes would be made into rounds, as a symbol of the sun, in hopes that the suns image would banish the cold, dark days. The first pancake was set on a windowsill as an offering to their ancestors and leftovers were thrown in a bonfire as a sacrifice to the gods.
Although the day is still one of self-examination, introspection and penance, Shrove Tuesday has acquired the character of excitement, fun and carnival around the world. Also, this day is the final day to "fatten up" before the dietary restrictions of Lent. Throughout the world, various countries and religions mark this day by cooking pancakes, using rich and fatty ingredients before the start of Lent, during which they were required to eat plain, non-indulgent foods. Ingredients such as eggs, milk, fats, etc., would have to be used up so as not to go bad during Lent. This day is celebrated as Mardi Gras in France, Fat Tuesday in New Orleans (which is the English translation of Mardi Gras), and as Carnival in South America. Other regions throughout the world celebrate with special dishes like the sweet jelly filled donut called pa̡czki (Poland), laskiaispulla pastry (Finland), the creamy filled buns known as semla (Sweden), Dreikönigskuchen in Switzerland which is also known as King Cake in New Orleans, and green pea soup (Estonia); the general message being “a feast before fasting.”
Iceland refers to this day as Sprengidagur (Bursting Day) and the tradition includes eating salted meats and peas. In Ireland, the day is celebrated as Pancake Tuesday, once marked with unmarried girls who would flip the first pancake. If she was successful, rumor had it that she would be married within the year. In Scotland, the pancake or “bannock” was placed under a girl’s pillow to induce dreams of her future husband. In Russia, this popular pagan (now Christian) holiday of Maslenitsa is the joyful occasion celebrating the end of winter and welcoming spring with laughter, excitement and of course, pancakes. Pancakes have been referenced in cooking documents in England as early as 1439. It was England that carried on the pagan tradition of serving pancakes and incorporated “pancake day races” where competitors dress in aprons would run through a set course while flipping pancakes in their frying pans as referenced in Pasquil's Palin in 1619. “And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne.”
When I developed the recipes, from my cookbook A Thyme and Place Medieval Feasts and Recipes for the Modern Table. I used (with some liberties) common flavors and ingredients available during Medieval Times. Yes, I know sharp cheddar cheese may not have not been available, but cheese was and it was abundant with various flavors. Similar recipes can be found in the cookbook (available at your favorite bookstore).