The movable Christian feast known amongst other things as Shrove Tuesday, Dydd Mawrth Ynyd, Carnival or Mardi Gras (depending on whether you’re from Bognor, Bangor, Barranquilla or the Bayou) is on February 28th this year. The date is calculated according to a fiendishly complex formula combining lunar cycles with Old Testament instructions and can fall anywhere between February 3rd and March 9th. The schism-riven monotheistic religion has never managed to entirely agree on a universally-acceptable date, despite pouring over the issue since the Council of Nicaea back in the year 325. Nobody can accuse them of decisiveness! It all depends on Easter Sunday, a stubborn remnant of the pre-Abrahamic worship of natural phenomena rather than human simulacra, which is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the March 21st spring equinox. All the Catholic and many of the Protestant traditions then count 47 days backwards from that point to allow for the 40-day fast of Lent plus the six Sundays during Lent when the penance can be relaxed. By this convoluted method the ecclesiastical authorities determine the date of what is always a Tuesday and the last day of self-indulgence before the commencement of self-denial on Ash Wednesday, Dydd Mercher Lludw. Incidentally, the fact that Ash Wednesday coincides with St David’s Day this year is, well, coincidence. It will happen again in 2029 but then not again until 2090, while Shrove Tuesday is on St David’s Day in 2022, 2033 and 2044, and then not at all until deep into the 22nd century – I know these dull things because the theologians’ Easter spreadsheets cover centuries in advance. Talk about optimistic!
In the post-Christian UK, Lent has virtually no adherents left. Even among the devout it has long been reduced to, at most, the mere forgoing of a single inadvisable naughtiness for a week or two. Meanwhile, the once bacchanalian knees-up of Shrove Tuesday has not amounted to much more than griddling a bit of batter since the Industrial Revolution swept away folk customs. Thus it has gradually transmuted into ‘Pancake Day’, a non-event that only enters public consciousness at all via a brief flurry of supermarket TV ads in the preceding week hawking disgusting ready-made batter.
Pancake Day has declined in importance even since my childhood. It was quite significant to my Catholic-educated mother. She would produce a conveyor-belt of scrumptious pancakes in her heaviest pan, delighting in her nifty tossing ability until arthritis took hold in later years. Studded with currants, they were brought piping hot to the table in batches, to be sprinkled with sugar, squirted with lemon and devoured with relish. And at primary school and on local playing fields and common lands, there were Shrove Tuesday pancake races or communal games, familiar rituals that acted as seasonal signposts marking the path through another year. Somehow the Day still retained a unique feeling, only explicable by the deep resonance of its ancient roots in pre-Christian ‘paganism’, when the scent of spring in the air and the palpably lengthening days let our ancestors know they had got through winter and it was safe to throw caution to the wind and start using stored foods. But rampant, dog-eat-dog, bottom-line turbo-capitalism has wiped out even those age-old, intangible senses in no time at all, while ushering in today’s profoundly unnatural, no-such-thing-as-society, hyper-individualised, amnesiac vacuity. This means it has all been dumbed down to the one aspect that can have a price-tag affixed: the eponymous pancake. Here I will depart from the English and use the much more expressive Welsh word: crempog.
This reminds me of a joke I’ve been imposing on mixed company for years (skip this paragraph if you’ve read it somewhere or other on this blog before). A woman goes into a pancake shop in the High Street Arcade and says to the assistant “May I have a crêpe please?” “I’m sorry madam but we don’t provide toilet facilities,” replies the assistant sniffily, sucking her teeth through pursed lips. Call me shallow, but this level of witty repartee invariably makes me roar with laughter – especially when the rest of the room is awkwardly silent.
Crempog and crêpe share the same Celtic etymology (as does ‘crumpet’ for that matter) and long pre-date the miserable, miserly excuse of the Anglo-American effort. For guidance on authentic Welsh food I always turn to my disintegrating copy of A Taste of Wales (1971) by Theodora Fitzgibbon (1916-1991), Irish bohemian and friend of Cocteau, Dali, Picasso, Bacon and Thomas. Using her template, tweaked for modern realities (i.e. nobody holds dinner parties for 10 anymore), here’s an infallible recipe just in time for a thoroughly secularised but still respectful Dydd Mawrth Crempog:
serves 4, makes 12-15 crempogau
170g (6oz) plain white flour
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons melted butter
2 tablespoons sugar (skip sugar if savoury crempog wanted)
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
½ pint milk
handful of currants
1 Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a large bowl
2 Make a well in the centre, pour in the eggs, butter and half the milk, beat with a wooden spoon to amalgamate
3 Gradually add the remaining milk, beating vigorously until the batter is smooth, leave to stand for 30 minutes
4 Heat a slightly greased bakestone or griddle (ok, the frying pan will have to do) over a medium heat
5 Using 2-3 tablespoons for each crempog, pour in the batter, tilt the pan so it runs evenly, cook until the edge is dry and the bubbles are popping, turn (or toss if you dare!), sprinkle on a few currants and cook for another minute
6 Stack up and keep warm in the oven until ready to serve (since tastebuds are largely determined by our mothers, I still eat them slathered in caster sugar and drenched in freshly-squeezed lemon juice).
Come to think of it, adding crempog to the many other recipes I’ve put in the ‘Life’ category of this blog over the years, I almost have the makings of a faintly diverting coffee-table book – working title Cegin Dic – that could shift copies as a conversation piece between hands of canasta at Old St Mellons’ soirées. Are you receiving me Gomer, Parthian, Seren, Y Lolfa, Graffeg, University of Wales Press and the rest of the “vibrant, successful Welsh publishing industry” (©Welsh Books Council)? Is there anyone out there?