Before Easter Sunday, There Was Collop Monday & Shrove Tuesday
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. This early 17th century painting by Frans Hals is titled 'Merrymakers at Shrovetide'. It depicts people enjoying all the rich food and drink they can before starting their Lenten fasts, that would last until Easter.

A dish of bacon-and-eggs isn't what comes to your mind when you think of Easter, and yet, this now staple breakfast has a historic connection to the festival. So does its peer, the pancake. 

As Mediaeval History expert Giles Gasper notes, during Lent, (European) society operated within a system of dietary regulation set by the church. "This involved abstinence from meat on particular days, for example, Fridays and periods before major church festivals. Fish was therefore important for Lenten diets, for those that could afford it. Of especial importance was the range of dried sea fish that formed one of the mainstays of the northern European economy," Gasper writes. 

Other banned foods during Lent included dairy and eggs. Another banned dietary item during Lent, was dairy. This led to the curious custom, just before the fast began, to use up all the eggs, lard and preserved meats (such as bacon) that a household had in store. 

Thus were born Collop Monday and Shrove Tuesday. 

The Nottingham Evening Post explains the former in a March 1924 edition: "Collop Monday, the day before Shrove Tuesday, is so-called because our ancestors cut their fresh meat into 'collops' or steaks for salting or hanging up till Lent was over. In Yorkshire and many other places, it is still a custom to have eggs and collops — slices of bacon — at dinner this day."

The "English breakfast" tradition of bacon and eggs is therefore seen to have emerged from this time.

Similarly, on Shrove Tuesday, families would use up any animal fat and eggs they still had. Having large gatherings for "pancake breakfasts" was de rigueur, and in many households, a further practice was to eat all the fatty and rich foods that one would be abstaining from, that night. Thus fortified, they could brace themselves for the period of fasting that began the next morning, on Ash Wednesday.

As a nod to this sanctioned gluttony on Shrove Tuesday, the French christened it 'Mardi Gras', meaning 'Fat Tuesday'.

But even if one had to stay away from one's favourite foods during Lent, enterprising cooks could still find a way or two to mimic their flavours and appearance. If modern cuisine has plenty of mock meat options, then these Mediaeval chefs were masters of making fake eggs. 

Giles Gasper cites a fascinating recipe for "eggs in Lent", as recorded in the British Library, from about 1430:

"Take eggs and blow out their insides through the other end. Then wash the shell clean in warm water; take good almond milk and set it on the fire, and take a fair cloth and pour the milk onto it and let the water run through. Then take the residue on the cloth and gather it together in a dish and add enough sugar to it. Then take half and colour it with a little saffron, and also add ground cinnamon. Then take some of the ‘white’ (the uncoloured mixture) and put it in the lower end of the shell, and put the ‘yolk’ (the coloured mixture) in the middle, and fill up the shell with (the remaining) white – but not too full in case it runs over. Then set it in the fire and roast it, and serve."

Of course, once the deprivations of Lent gave way to the bounties of Easter, eggs of a different sort would come into prominence. The Middle Ages didn't have chocolate Easter eggs, but they did have some wonderfully decorated, normal variants. Gold leaf designs, dyed patterns...for those who could afford such luxuries, Easter eggs proved a truly special festive delight.