Carnival has been and gone. For those who are not familiar with this festival (well, there could be one or two) Carnival and/or Mardi Gras are celebrations that take place in the days before Ash Wednesday, which itself inaugurates Lent, which in turn is a period of forty days of privation and purification before Easter. Get out your Missals to understand the liturgical year of your French Catholic ancestors.
In the time of delirium there is dancing in the streets, sometimes in disguise or wearing masks, parties all around, even in dour France (we are reminded of a particularly harrowing Carnival scene in Agnès Varda's Vagabond) and -- pertinent here -- special, usually rich foods, even more usually (but not always), a form of fried dough, or beignet.
The names and recipes differ from one region to another in France, each a possibly precious memory from one's childhood, a memory that may have been taken well into later life in other places. Thus, if you have in your family a particular French recipe for something sweet -- probably fried -- eaten at Carnival or Mardi Gras time, it could indicate the province where your ancestor originated.
- In Champagne, people prepared pets-de-nonne and faveroles, both forms of beignets
- In the area around Maçon, in Bourgogne, people ate couques, a sort of spice cake, at Carnival time (not to be confused with the Belgian couque, which is more bready, like a brioche, nor with the couque de Dinant, which is more akin to a rock, neither of which is special to Carnival)
- In the rest of Bourgogne folks went in for bugnes, yet again the beignet
- In Lorraine, the above is called the beignet de carnaval or the corvechet
- In Alsace, a beignet for Carnival is a rousette
- In Limousin, the Carnival treat is the flognarde, NOT a beignet but a custardy thing with fruit in it, similar to clafouti
- In Poitou it is the beignet again, but here called a tourtisseau and cut in the shape of a lozenge
- The beignet in Anjou, Bretagne and Vendée is called a bottereau
- We like the Provence name for the beignet: chichi frégi (what imagery comes to mind!)
- In Touraine, the Carnival beignet is called the crotte de masque and comes with a warning: it must not be eaten after Carnival, especially not on Ash Wednesday, as it will have a toad in it
- In Berry - land of George Sand -- it is bugnon or beugnon
- In Orléans, one eats a beignet at Carnival and calls it a roussotte
- In Bourbon, one eats a sancieau, which can be either a thick pancake with apples or....a beignet
Now is the time of Lent, yet it has come to our attention that there is a moment coming up in advance of Easter when these delights may be eaten again. Your ever practical French ancestors celebrated a mi-Carême, literally, a Mid-Lent, which came exactly twenty days into Lent. Its source is an abhorrence of waste: fresh eggs lasted a maximum of twenty-one days. On mi-Carême, basket-loads beignets were whipped up and fried, served and eaten with - we presume - speed, to avoid the return of the toad.
What does your family call fried dough at Mardi Gras? Was there talk of toads in your food on Ash Wednesday? Get out those ancestral recipe books and look for one of the terms above. Maybe this will be the one little word that will tell you where your ancestors called home.
©2013 Anne Morddel