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Pancakes and the Arctic Diet

In 2022, Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day is celebrated on 1 March. While the date changes every year, this Anglo-Saxon feast is always 47 days before Easter Sunday. It’s a moveable celebration because it’s based on the cycles of the moon, but the pancake recipe* is also symbolic for Christians– eggs (creation), flour (life), salt (wholesomeness) and milk (purity) - all ingredients the believer traditionally gave up for Lent, as a way of atoning for their sins.

Isobel enjoying a picnic, travelling by umiak (open skin boat) on one of her many excursions with local Inuit friends

Isobel’s travels in the Arctic would have made her an avid watcher of lunar cycles and pancake day may well have been more notable because of her proximity to the north pole. It takes roughly 28 days for the moon to orbit the earth and because of our planet’s tilt, people at the poles regularly see the moon constantly for two weeks before it disappears for two weeks. Native peoples in the northern regions often have strong beliefs based on their observations of such phenomenon in nature, seeing seasonal changes as prophesying fortunes to come and looking to land and sea spirits for protection. While Isobel’s Christian faith would have brought new ideas, we know that her love of fairies and folklore would also have helped her to feel at home in this world. Indeed, her travels to Greenland were perhaps the most settled time of her life and her poems, films and writing reflect a real sense of belonging there.

Perhaps it was her Scottish heritage that caused Isobel to have a bit of a ‘sweet tooth’, (after all Robert Burns called Scotland “land o cakes”), but it’s recorded that her cargo to Greenland included cakes and confectionery as well as one stone (6.5kg) of dog biscuits for the sledge dogs. Other records show her serving plum pudding, flaming with French brandy to the Greenlanders during Christmas (1928).

Extract from ‘In the Arctic’

“What is it like in your country?”

(They ask me). “What do you do and eat?

We have heard it is pleasant and beautiful

With fresh fruit and very much meat."

Low temperatures and lack of sunlight make plants scarce in the Arctic, so Isobel would have followed a keto-esque diet on her expeditions, with the bulk of her protein and other nutrients coming from meat and fish (dried, smoked, frozen and fresh). Manoeuvring sledges that can weight more than 500 kgs (1,100 Ibs), for as much as 12 hours a day, Isobel would have had to eat about 6,000 calories, (the equivalent of a marathon runner) and is likely to have put her botanist skills to good use in finding cloudberries and fireweed to supplement her meat based diet. She may even have tried a frozen treat similar to ice cream, which is still popular today and involves mixing berries with whipped fat. An Inuit dessert known as akutuq .

Though she did her best to live like the native peoples, it’s a surprising fact that Isobel had no idea how to cook. One of her first attempts was on the shore of a Greenland fjord, when a fisherman presented her with two salmon. She had to improvise and fried them with some butter under the watchful eye of several locals. We can only assume they were impressed, but it didn’t inspire her to learn culinary skills. Isobel had no need for creature comforts or modern appliances and even when she returned to Carlowrie castle in later life, she lived with no central heating and a very basic old cooker. Perhaps it was her way to stay connected with memories of her travels and her second home in the ice and snow.

*Historically, a pancake was a 'cake' cooked on a heated flat surface. Recipes feature in cookery books as far back as 1439, with nuances for French, English and American variations. Scotch pancakes are also known as 'dropped scones', because once all the ingredients are mixed, the batter is dense enough to drop it onto any hot cooking surface. They also tend to be smaller and fatter than other varieties of pancakes and more scone like in their consistency. Incidentally, scones also originated in Scotland.

If you feel like making your own here’s a family recipe to try.

175g (6oz) self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

40g (11/2oz) caster sugar

1 egg

200ml (7fl oz) milk

Whisk everything together until smooth. Heat a little oil or butter in a non-stick pan over a high heat. Use a dessert spoon to drop the mixture into the pan. Wait for bubbles to appear on the surface (about 2 minutes) before turning.

Serve with the topping of your choice. Makes about 15 medium sized pancakes.

These freeze well too – perfect for Arctic living.


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The North Star Explorer

Learn more about Isobel’s passion for the natural world, her experience of travelling to remote places and her encounters expressed through art and creative writing.

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