Cats in a Barrel and Pancakes
Today is Fastelavn, the Danish holiday where children dress up and the whole nation eats sticky buns. Can’t wait!
Fastelavn always falls on the Sunday before Lent, so is kind of the Danish version of Mardi Gras, without all the boobs and coloured necklaces. So what exactly is Lent, and where do the cats and pancakes fit in?
What is Lent?
Lent is linked to Easter, the religious holiday which celebrates Christ rising from the dead. It begins on Ash Wednesday and finishes 47 days later on Easter Sunday. The death of Jesus occurred around the Jewish Passover, which is traditionally held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. As a result Easter can be as early as March or as late as April or May.
Prior to taking up his ministry, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness praying and fasting. Following the example of Jesus, Lent is the six and a half week season of reflection and repentance, when Christians traditionally observed a period of fasting. (You do not count the Sundays in between as they are regarded as mini Easters.) Nowadays many Christians choose to give up something like coffee or alcohol as a ‘sacrifice’ for Lent. Our fabulous Pastor in Rowayton, John Livingston, suggested we could also observe Lent by adding something meaningful to our life. I like that idea so much better!
Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras
The day before Ash Wednesday, March 5th this year, is when many people have one last ‘hurrah’, a feast before the fast. There are many different traditional celebrations observed across the world, but the best known parties are ‘Carnival’ in Rio de Janeiro and ‘Mardi Gras’ or Fat Tuesday in New Orleans. There, the streets are filled with parades and floats and people having a good time. I would love to go one day!
All these celebrations however, come from the tradition called Shrovetide, with the verb to shrive meaning to free yourself from sin. The Tuesday before Lent is more commonly known in the U.K. as Shove Tuesday or Pancake day. As everyone was about to fast, Pancake Day started as a way to use up the butter, flour and eggs which were in the house and could not be eaten during Lent.
I suspect I may have learned more about Pancake Day from Valerie Singleton on the excellent children’s show Blue Peter than from the Presbyterian, anti ritual, church we attended. We, children in the north-east of Scotland, just thought it was a great excuse to have pancakes.
The pancake has a very long history and appeared in cookery books as early as 1439. Of course the best bit about making pancakes is tossing them, a dangerous and tricky tradition which is nearly as old as pancakes themselves. “And every man and maide doe take their turne, And tosse their Pancakes up for feare they burne.” (Pasquil’s Palin, 1619). In many towns across the U.K. people are forming teams to take part in Pancake Day races where they have to run whilst tossing a pancake. I think St Albans Church in Copenhagen has a race too, but from photos it seems only the clergy take part!
The ingredients for pancakes are also seen to be symbolic. Eggs represent the Creation, Flour is the Staff of Life, Salt is Wholesomeness and Milk is purity.
Oh, the things you can do
Pancakes are great because you can create many different dishes, both sweet and savory, using the basic recipe.
I arrived in London in 1987, just at the end of the ‘Champagne Charlie’ era. Gone were the long boozy lunches of the heady early and mid 80s. Most of the time I just nipped out to Leadenhall Market, aka ‘Diagon Alley’, for a ridiculously expensive coronation chicken and mango chutney sandwich, which I took back to my desk. One glorious day however I do remember going out for lunch. On the menu was a stack of seafood pancakes, served in wedges with salad. Between each layer was a different type of seafood. smoked salmon, prawns in Rose Marie sauce, perhaps there was a layer of cucumbers. It was fantastic and, at the time, truly revolutionary. I have made the seafood stack in the past and promise to create a recipe soon. Until then, many of my suggestions for oatmeal or porridge would work well with pancakes.
I am going to give a basic pancake recipe below, because now we have to talk about black cats and the Danish Tradition of Fastelavn.
Fastelavn Traditions in Denmark
Fastelavn is celebrated on the Sunday or Monday before Ash Wednesday. It is the Scandinavian version of Mardi Gras crossed with Halloween. Fastelavn does, however ,has rather murky origins. The main tradition seems to have been to place a black cat in a barrel, and then beat the barrel with ‘fastelavnsris’, which was a bat or a bunch of twigs. Everyone continued beating the barrel until it fell apart and hopefully the cat was released. The cat represented evil and beating the barrel was a ritual of purification.
Prior to the cat ritual, children and infertile young woman had been flogged, a good old 18th century way to remind us all of the pains of Christ on the cross and to ward off evil. (Possibly mixed in with an old fertility ritual?) More recently, children woke their parents on Fastelavn Sunday by hitting them with Fastlavnsris. Those crazy Danes!
Nowadays Fastelavn is a children’s holiday. Children dress up and there are Fastelavn parties in schools and kindergartens. The black cat has been replaced by sweets or candy and the barrel has become a piñata. The barrel now only has a picture of a black cat on it. The children hit the barrel with fastelavnsris and whoever breaks open the barrel becomes “King of the Cats” (kattekonge) and “Queen of the Cats,” (kattedronning). In the very democratic Denmark, the contents of the barrel is shared equally. After school there is a tradition of ‘raslen’, which to me sounds like ‘trick or treating’ or possibly the Scottish ‘guysing’.
Like all good holidays you get to eat special food at Fastlavn, Fastelavnsboller. They are a bit like Scottish cream buns, or a thick choux pastry filled with either jam or cream and topped with chocolate or vanilla icing. They even have a song.
Shrove Tuesday Pancakes
Basic pancake mixture for Shrove Tuesday Pancakes!
- 110g/4oz/3/4 Cup plain or all-purpose flour
- pinch of salt
- 2 eggs
- 200ml milk with 75ml water
- 2TBS melted butter plus more for greasing the pan
- Step 1 Sieve the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl and make a well in the center.
- Step 2 Break the eggs into the well and using a whisk slowly mix them into the flour.
- Step 3 Gradually add the milk and water, whisking constantly until you have a light batter.
- Step 4 Add the melted butter and stir thoroughly.
- Step 5 Add a small ladle full of the batter to the hot pan, just enough to thinly cover the base of the pan and move from side to side until it evenly covers the surface .
- Step 6 Reduce the heat and cook for about a minute each side or until the pancake is a nice golden colour.
- Step 7 If you are feeling brave toss to turn over.
- Step 8 Eat while still warm.
- Step 9 If you wish to save them for later layer each pancake with a small square of parchment paper.
- Step 10 Eat with lemon and sugar or the topping of your choice.
However you celebrate the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, I hope you have a good time, and if you are tossing pancakes just remember the five second rule works on Fat Tuesday too!