There are lots of delicious things to put on pancakes. In France they go for chocolate, in America it’s syrup and in Germany it’s fruit jam and spices. So why did we British choose a tradition of sugar and lemon?
Pancakes have been made at this time of year for almost two millennia. The Christian tradition of Lent matches up to similar festivals across the globe whereby people wish to use up short shelf life ingredients like eggs and milk before a period of fasting. However, lemons weren’t even widely cultivated in Europe until the 15th century so what was the trigger for this topping becoming a great British favourite?
Initially, lemons were not used for eating. The trees were grown decoratively and the fruits were used for medicinal purposes. It was believed they were an excellent all-rounder to treat pain, constipation, digestive disorders, control weight and reduce risk of infection. Initial high demand by the rich meant lemon trees remained a luxury item in Britain for many years even after Europe began widely cultivating them.
It was at this stage in history that Eton College was founded under the reign of Henry VI in 1440. They had 3 terms, known as halves:- the Michaelmas Half, the Lent Half, and the Summer Half. For much of its early history, all students to attend were picked specifically by the King himself and were known as King’s Scholars.
Henry VI, having married a Frenchwoman, swore by the efficacy of lemons against all ills and he ensured that lemons were available to the pupils who studied there. Education was still expensive and if he were to invest in teaching for these scholars it was important to keep them alive! At the beginning of each half, lemons would be provided to the pupils with the advice that they should be eaten – all but the rind. Obviously this was not to everyone’s taste. The pupils went to extreme lengths to make eating the lemons tolerable. They tried them whole, pulped, sliced and chopped. But whichever way you look at a lemon, it is bitter. They very quickly learned that the only improvement was to add sugar and hope for the best. So it happened that whatever the seasonal dish was at the start of each term, they would try to find a way to incorporate their seasonal medicine. In summer it was with ice and cordial, in winter candied on cakes.
When the lemons were provided at the beginning of the Lent Half, occasionally this fell over Shrove Tuesday and that’s when a tradition was born!