FOOD & DRINK / A better bit of batter: Except on Shrove Tuesday, British pancake culture is ailing. Elsewhere there are more celebrated varieties, says Michael Bateman

WE HAVE been celebrating Pancake Tuesday for around 500 years. Yet considering that the pancake is such an important part of our food mythology, isn't it strange that we don't eat out in pancake houses? The French have creperies in every town, but we don't have pancakeries.

This is a crying shame, says Andrew Elial, editor of the Egon Ronay restaurant guides. Passionate about pancakes, he laments the fact that on his travels he finds them served less and less. He says: 'I remember when I was a child eating 14 to 16 at a sitting. At home we'd sometimes have a meal based around pancakes. We'd start with a bouillon (a clear soup) with shredded pancake on top. Then we'd have savoury pancakes filled with mince and tomatoes, or canned creamed sweetcorn or spinach. For pudding we'd have flat pancakes with lemon and sugar, home-made jam or cream cheese.'

Last week, Mr Elial launched the 1994 Egon Ronay Just a Bite (Britvic pounds 9.99), listing places where you can eat for under pounds 15 a head. There isn't a pancakerie in it, or even an eaterie majoring in pancakes. There are a few waffle houses, he admits, and a waffle is made with yeasted pancake batter, but it's not the same. (He recommends the Kingsbury Mill Waffle House in St Albans, Herts.)

Mr Elial finds it surprising that British caterers don't exploit the potential of pancakes. 'It is good business. You can make pancakes for less than 20p each and sell them at around pounds 3.' There are still a few plush places which sport a gueridon (the pedestal table pulled up beside you, where a waiter in monkey jacket can pour brandy on your food and set light to it). They will not serve you pancakes so much as crepes suzette. Suzette, whoever she was, must have been a hot ticket since the pancakes are flambeed in Cognac, then rinsed in orange curacao liqueur and a buttery syrup of tangerine juice.

It is a frenchified recipe to be found in the works of Auguste Escoffier, who wrote the bible of French cookery at the turn of the century. But according to E S Dallas, who wrote Kettner's Book of the Table in 1877, in his time the French hadn't got a clue about making pancakes. He wrote: 'It is a curious and unaccountable fact that if you ask for a pancake in Paris you have to wait half an hour for it, and in England if you ask for an omelette you have to wait just as long. Neither should take more than five minutes.'

But the French pancake does have a long history. In Norman times it was known as a crespe - later losing the letter S, and taking a circumflex accent to become a crepe. (And crisp they were, achieved by using white of egg in the batter and omitting the yolks.) In England, although early recipe books don't have much to say about it, presumably because it was so ordinary and common, the pancake is generally assumed to be one of our oldest cooked dishes.

The writer Gervase Markham, a contemporary of Shakespeare, follows the Norman French view that a pancake should be crisp. 'There be some which mix pancakes with new milk or cream, but that makes them tough, cloying and not crisp, pleasant and savoury as running water.' By the 17th century, English pancakes begin to be heavily enriched. The leading cookery writer of her day, Hannah Glasse, gives pancake recipes which include both double cream and extra egg yolks and sometimes sack (sherry) spiced with ginger, cinnamon and allspice.

In the 18th century 'thin cream pancakes' are served layered with sifted sugar between them, with the pretty name, A Quire of Paper. Mary Kettilby describes this elaborate dish in her Collection of Receipts (1728): to make 20 pancakes you use as little as 3 tablespoons of flour (3oz) to one pint of cream, 8 eggs (less 2 of the whites), 1/4 lb melted butter, sherry, sugar, rose water and nutmeg. The pancakes are made as thin as possible and cooked on one side only. They are sprinkled with sugar and built up into a cake, layer by layer.

All this butter, all this cream, all these eggs. Herein lies the clue to why we celebrate Pancake Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday is the last day before Lent, and food historians believe it was a final throw of self indulgence before these luxuries were denied by the church during the fasting period.

Shriving took place on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; priests took confessions, ordered penance and granted absolution (though obsolete, except in its shrove usage, the word lives on as 'short shrift', originally the time between passing sentence and punishment or execution). The word later came to take on a more pleasant connotation. By 1537, says my dictionary, 'shroving' came to mean merry-making.

The first pancake race seems to have been recorded in Olney, Buckinghamshire, in 1445. Housewives there still run the 415-yard course, tossing a pancake three times, the winner receiving a prayer book and a kiss from the verger.

The Welsh are proud of their crempog, a creamy pancake mixture which is made with flour, buttermilk and an egg, and fried in a buttered pan until it is light brown. The Scots boast of their oaten pancakes - boil a chopin of milk (a quart) and blend with a mutchkin of oatmeal flour (a pint measurement). The Irish have boxty, which is potato pancake.

Is there a country without its characteristic pancake? What is the tortilla of central America if not a maize flour pancake, or the buckwheat flour blini of Russia or the austere Mandarin pancakes served with shredded Peking duck?

Claudia Roden, in her Book of Middle Eastern Food describes ataif, Arab pancakes which have been a delicacy since medieval times. They are made simply with flour, water and yeast, then dipped in a lemon-flavoured syrup scented with orange-blossom water. They can be sprinkled with pistachios and eaten with thick cream; or stuffed, folded and deep-fried in very hot oil.

In Italy and France there are recipes for stuffed pancakes, covered with sauce and baked in the oven. One of the finest savoury pancakes of all is the southern Indian masala dosa. This is made with lentil flour (urad dhal), sometimes blended with rice flour, mixed with water and left to ferment overnight. This has the same effect as adding yeast or baking powder; it makes the mixture light and frothy. The batter is swirled into a circle in the pan and cooked till crisp and crunchy, then folded over a filling of cooked potato with curry spices and chilli and served with a coconut chutney.

In Britain we choose to honour the pancake just one day of the year. But many of us regularly put pancake batter under the Sunday roast and call it Yorkshire pudding.

The grand old French chef Auguste Escoffier's famous recipe for sweet pancakes is given below. It makes 16-20 thin ones (the quantities can be halved for fewer). If you are making savoury pancake dishes omit the sugar, brandy and orange flower water, use one egg less and substitute 2 tablespoons of olive oil for the butter when frying.

For a dish of baked cheese pancakes, for example, make 1 1/2 pints of white sauce (melt 1 1/2 oz butter, stir in 1 1/2 oz flour then 1 1/4 pints of warmed milk and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg). Sprinkle cubes of Gruyere on each pancake and moisten with some of the sauce. Roll up. Allowing three or four pancakes per person, line an oven dish with them and pour over the rest of the sauce, sprinkle with Parmesan and bake in a hot oven for about 10 minutes, until bubbling.

SWEET PANCAKES

Serves 6 (about 3 each)

225g/8oz flour, sifted

600ml/1 pint milk and water (half and half)

3 eggs

2 tablespoons brandy

1 tablespoon orange flower water

2 tablespoons melted butter

pinch salt

Mix the eggs into the flour, then beat in the milk and the water to make a smooth and creamy mixture (use an electric blender for speed). Add the brandy and orange flower water, and the salt. The texture should be runny, like thin cream.

Pour a large tablespoonful into a non-stick pan over a medium heat, wiped down with melted butter or oil (use a sheet of kitchen paper). Tilt pan so that batter covers the base. The first two pancakes are always a bit rough, then they get better. Another way of pouring is to pour in a ladleful of batter, swirl it around, then pour out excess.

Cook for about one minute until it starts to curl at the edges and turn crispy brown underneath (lift it up to see); toss and cook for 20 to 30 seconds on the other side.-

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