We only think of them on Shrove Tuesday, but pancakes of different shapes and flavours are cooked (and flipped) all year round, all over the world. Sybil Kapoor gets to the bottom of batter

In some shape or form, pancakes will be beaten, fried, tossed, dropped, raced and eaten across the country on Tuesday. Yet, to some people, the cooking of pancakes is a serious and year-round matter. Joe McDermott, owner of London's La Galette Crêperie Restaurant, enrolled at the Ecole Maître Crêpier near Rennes in Brittany before opening his restaurant. A galette is a savoury pancake made from buckwheat flour, and the school painstakingly teaches batter-making. "We spent the first few days beating an egg with salt and half a litre of water into a kilo of buckwheat flour for 10 minutes, using our bare hands. It was like working cement, but you have to learn how to get the right consistency." After this, the batter should rest in the fridge for four hours, before it is thinned with more water. This makes 30 galettes. McDermott's teacher, Jean-Pierre Lepeuve, might not approve of his using an industrial beater and adding a further egg but, this is Britain, and we have always parted company with the French over some things. As Gervase Markham remarked in his book The English Hus-wife in 1615: "There be some which mix pancakes with new milk or cream, but that makes them tough, cloying and not crisp, pleasant, savoury as running water." The matter has caused much culinary debate for four centuries. Even today, opinion is divided as to whether a pancake should be made with milk, water or both, although most are clear that the only proper accompaniment on Shrove Tuesday is lemon and sugar. The biggest mystery is why, when they are so easy to make, we only remember to cook pancakes once a year?

La Galette Crêperie Restaurant, 56 Paddington Street, Marylebone, London W1 (020-7935 1554)

Pancake patter

Strictly speaking, pancakes should be made with eggs, flour and liquid and cooked on a griddle or pan, not pressed and rolled like flat bread. Pancake enthusiasts can follow the trail of flour around the world, picking up new varieties on the way.

Banana dosas: A sweet Keralan speciality made from mashed bananas, rice flour, plain flour, sugar, water and ground cardamom seeds dropped on to a griddle.

Blinis: Russian buckwheat pancakes enriched with yeast and melted butter so they form puffy cakes. Popular with creme fraiche and smoked salmon or caviar.

Crêpes: Skinny British pancakes, the batter is made with eggs and flour – wholewheat, white or chestnut. It's thinned down with milk, water or even beer, plus a spoonful of oil or melted butter, to the consistency of single cream. Sweet crêpes benefit from a tablespoon of Calvados or Cognac but do not need sugar.

Crêpes dentelles: (Lace pancakes) Mix the same weight of egg, flour, sugar and butter. The resulting crêpe is meltingly rich with a lacy edge – hence its name.

Corn cakes: American-style pancakes similar to drop scones. Made with maize flour, the best are flavoured with chilli and topped with sour cream and smoked fish.

Drop scones: Widely made in Scotland and Wales from a thick, flour-and-egg batter that relies raising and souring agents such as bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk, to rise in the pan. Very good with butter and honey.

Galettes: Thin crêpe made from buckwheat flour stuffed with savoury ingredients such as ham and cheese or sautéed vegetables gratinéed with gruyère.

Pancake noodles: Pancakes cut into ribbons and tossed in butter, like pasta. These are only worth making if you have a surfeit of eggs, energy and time.

Popia: These hard-to-do, wafer-thin, Chinese pancakes are made from flour and water. Stuffed with bean curd, prawns, pork and snow peas, they are served up with various relishes and garnishes.

Pancake races

Shrove Tuesday was originally a church holiday, where everyone could eat, drink and generally run amok after being shriven (absolved of sins after confession), before Lent began the next day. Pancake racing appears to have started around the year 1445. According to the legend, a local housewife in Olney, Buckinghamshire was busy making pancakes when she heard the bell calling everyone to church for the shriving service. Either from fear of being late, or to bribe the sexton to speed up the proceedings before the holiday, she ran through the town, clutching her frying-pan with its pancake in it. The custom has continued in Olney ever since. The race is open only to Olney women and they must wear a skirt, apron and head- covering to qualify. They must also supply their own pancake and pan, and the winner is rewarded with a kiss from the verger. Elsewhere, pancake races are open to anyone who can pull off the not inconsiderable trick of running and tossing a pancake at the same time.

Olney Pancake Race, Market Place, Olney, Buckinghamshire. The event runs from 10am to 1pm. It includes children's pancake races, street entertainers and stalls plus as many pancakes as you can manage to eat. All funds raised go towards the Olney Parish Church. The main race is at 11.50am and the Shriving Service starts at 12.15pm.

Shrovetide Fair and Pancake Races, Lichfield, Staffordshire. The races are a relatively recent introduction to the 300- year-old festivities involved in opening the Shrovetide Fair.

Sway Pancake Races, grounds of the White Rose Hotel, Station Road, Sway, Lymington, Hampshire, are held in aid of the Oakhaven Hospice in Lymington. The races start at 4pm, but don't forget to bring a pan. Pancake teas are available afterwards in the hotel.

The Great Spitalfields Pancake Race, Old Spitalfields Market, London E1. Freshly made pancakes are supplied but bring a frying-pan for the 12.30pm start. The event is in aid of the Children in Cities campaign run by Save the Children.

Yarmouth Pancake Races, The Square, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight. The entry to these races is free, but do bring a pancake and a frying-pan. The races start at 10.45am and last for about an hour. Beribboned lemons, wooden spoons and frying-pans are awarded as prizes.

Crepe pans

Pancakes have a natural tendency to stick like glue to a frying pan, especially when the cook is keen to demonstrate a neat wrist action and toss them into the air. A little melted butter or oil can be added to the batter to alleviate this particular situation, just as the offending pan can be pre-heated over a medium-high flame and vigorously rubbed with some oil-soaked kitchen paper between each pancake, but success cannot be guaranteed if the pan has not been well seasoned.

Worse still, some people believe that new-fangled non-stick frying pans make rubbery pancakes. So, in the interest of research, I subjected my old, well-seasoned, cast-iron omelette pan and the latest Tefal Optimal black Thermospot 22cm pancake pan (£6.95, available from all John Lewis stores) to a rigorous test. The latter has a red spot that indicates when the pan is at the correct temperature to add the pancake batter. Having eaten the results (four pancakes – with and without lemon and sugar), I found there to be little difference between the two. If you only make pancakes once a year and your normal pan tends to be prone to sticking, it is probably wise to go for a non-stick pancake pan, since you can flip them standing on your head.

Traditional, cast-iron 19cm pancake pans (£5.75) can be bought from Divertimenti, 139-141 Fulham Road, London SW3 (020-7581 8065) or 45-47 Wigmore Street, London, W1 (020-7935 0689).