A case for using oats, an egg, and a little sugar to unite a royal celebration and a humble recipe invented by poor Scotsmen
When I was six, the females in my family celebrated the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di with a backyard tea party. It was a big event. My grandmother, who'd grown up in wartime London looking to the Queen Mother for moral support, was a monarchist. Her dining room plate rail was lined with teacups and saucers, gold-rimmed plates, teapots, and vessels for cream and sugar, all displaying the stoic faces of British royalty. It was with great pomp that she organized this special tea party and made Scotch pancakes to honor the occasion.
I watched as she fried dozens of pancakes—small, delicate discs that were golden brown and only slightly larger than a silver dollar. We spread them with butter, sprinkled sugar on top, and ate them cold, with our fingers, as we sat in the sun on the backyard lawn. They were, from the perspective of a Canadian six-year-old who was dressed by her mother in red, white, and blue and with Union Jack ribbons tied around her ponytails, the perfect food to celebrate a royal wedding. Thirty years later, they remain the best way to celebrate William and Kate's big day.
I'd never had Scotch pancakes before and have rarely had them since. As their name indicates, they are from Scotland. The Oxford Companion to Food calls them Scots (rather than Scotch) pancakes and categorizes them as a dropped scone, made from a thick batter of buttermilk and small amounts of egg and sugar; the mix is then dropped onto a hot pan. The pancakes are supposed to be cooked on a griddle—which would in the past have been a flat metal plate hung over the fire, but now any thick frying pan will do—an invention that dates back at least to medieval times. The hot metal suspended in the heat of glowing embers was a way for people who couldn't afford an oven to bake nevertheless. The simple ingredients of the pancakes—one egg, only a little sugar—also speak to parsimony. Which means Scotch pancakes are peasant food, not royal fare.
So it's highly unlikely that William and Kate will be nibbling Scotch pancakes tomorrow. Quite the contrary. Royal weddings are typically huge displays of wealth and status, filled with quirky traditions such as naming a dish after the bride (Diana's was chicken with lamb mousse and asparagus they called Suprême de Volaille Princesse de Galle). Menus have traditionally been composed in French and, according to a history of royal weddings on the BBC Food blog, past preparations would have included breeding animals specifically for the big day.
But in 2011, word on the street is that the palace wants to project a more downmarket image. And so I would argue that precisely because these pancakes are simple, they are the ideal choice for the royal chefs. There might even still time to change the menu to include the Scotch pancake—the menu will only be revealed on the day of. Since Britons are cutting back, both at home and in government, the Scots pancake is the ultimate frugal canapé to be served on silver trays by the royal butlers at the wedding breakfast at Buckingham Palace. Not to mention that this recipe is suited for a local and seasonal theme that is expected by palace watchers—the father of the groom is the owner of an organic farm and a proponent of sustainable food.
Regardless of whether any royal lips touch them, I will be making Scotch pancakes on April 29 and having a tea party with my girls, who are the same age my sister and I were once upon a time. I have the perfect recipe. The other day I found an old cookery book of my grandmother's titled Recipes from Scotland. The inscription dates the book back to Christmas 1946, a gift from a Scottish friend she'd met while serving in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during the war. The jacket explains that the author spent time in what's described as "primitive" kitchens in Scotland where a three-legged pot hung over a peat fire. Her recipe for tea pancakes (because why would a Scottish person name their own pancakes Scots pancakes?) calls for one egg, a teacupful of flour, and suet wrapped in a clean white rag to grease the griddle, and it conjures up a different time.
I plan on using this old recipe, and then I'll smear those pancakes with gooseberry jam or just butter and sugar. I encourage you to join me.
Image: Curious Food Lover/flickr