Today (February 21) is Mardi Gras in France, with traditional “carnival” treats abounding and varying considerably depending on the region. From doughnuts to waffles and bugnes, we explore some of the best.
Some of the more famous treats include the crunchy bugnes (a sort of doughnut) from Lyon, the buttery gaufres (waffles) of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the softer doughnuts of Franche-Comté.
Even further south to Provence or Corsica, and you will likely find oreillettes, doughnuts flavoured with lemon zest or even myrtle brandy, and even a Spanish influence in the form of churros.
Depending on taste, you may wish to add to your fried goodies with chocolate spread, honey, strawberry jam, lemon juice, maple syrup, icing sugar, or cinnamon…the possibilities are endless!
Your region of France may also impact your Mardi Gras choices. If you are in:
- Nord: Gaufres (waffles), often crispy, and flavoured with icing sugar, chocolate, or jam may be your first choice
- Dunkirk: Crêpes, waffles, apple fritters or ‘ch'nord’: crispy dough with orange zest
- Lyon: The bugnes doughnuts, which originate from ancient Rome
- Nice: The ganses, which are both soft and crispy, and commonly found at the Nice Carnival
- Franche-Comté: The pets de nonne, which are similar to choux pastry fried in a ball
- Strasbourg: The roussettes, found in a range of geometric styles, often flavoured with kirsch and cinnamon
- Provence: The merveilles, golden and crispy, flavoured with orange blossom
- Landes: The crouchepettes, inflated doughnuts
- Perpignan: The bougnettes, which are light and round
- Vendée: The bottereaux, made with a firm, leavened dough
- Vosges: The beugnot
- Provence and Corsica: The oreillettes
A simple dough recipe
Eggs, sugar, flour, milk, and a pinch of salt – the basic building blocks for a huge variety of sweet treats prepared across France today. Try the following as a base for any kind of Mardi Gras delight.
- 2 eggs
- 3 tbsp of sugar (add vanilla sugar to taste)
- ½ sachet of baking powder
- 250g of flour
- 125ml of milk
- A pinch of salt to taste
- Zest of an orange or lemon
- A drop of water, orange blossom or even Schnapps
- Mix the eggs and sugar with a fork.
- Then add the milk, then the flour and baking powder.
- Combine until smooth.
To fry simple doughnuts, heat a pan of oil, and drop soup spoon amounts of the mixture into the oil. Leave to fry to golden brown.
Drain onto a kitchen towel to absorb the excess oil, and top with icing sugar, or your chosen topping. Eat warm for best results!
Why do we eat dough-based treats on Mardi Gras?
Historian Nadine Cretin told Madame Figaro in 2022 that eating such recipes is a nod to the imminent return of spring and a traditional way to finish all the dough and “luxury” food before the beginning of the Lent period of deprivation.
This required "a feast that included meats and fatty broths, and ended with simple pastries to make: pancakes or doughnuts, bugnes lyonnaises, merveilles d'Aquitaine or waffles,” she said.
Mardi Gras "implies prosperity, fertility, new life in the barns and fields, and the renewal of nature", she added.
The ‘gras’ (fat) part of the term refers to this feast of eating fatty broths and pastries.
Is Mardi Gras a holiday in France?
No, sadly not. The next national jour férié is Lundi de Pâques (Easter Monday), on Monday, April 10.
Where does Mardi Gras come from?
Mardi Gras is traditionally the last day of Carnival, and comes from the Italian carnis levare, which means ‘to take away the meat’. It refers to the last ‘fat’ meals eaten before Lent.
In the past, this season was one of the most critical periods in the agricultural calendar, and saw farmers use up their last reserves of winter food, such as butter and eggs..
It is also connected with Pagan rituals that celebrate the rebirth of nature and the coming of spring, including increased daylight, the beginning of the thaw, and the first buds beginning to blossom.
It also marks the last day of feasting before Lent, which has historically corresponded to a period of deprivation, with no rich food or dancing.
Where does the carnival tradition come from?
It originated in Italy, notably in Venice, as far back as the 11th century. Masks appeared in the 13th century, allowing for anonymity, mystery and enabling even wilder partying. Social roles were reversed and people could let their hair down before the deprivations of Lent.
The Italian tradition spread, particularly in medieval Europe (Switzerland, West Germany, Belgium, northern France) and then to the Americas.
Among the most traditional costumes today are those from the Commedia dell'arte, a genre of Italian popular theatre.
Characters include Harlequin, a ‘bon vivant’, who wears a colourful costume; the old Pantaloon, who walks around in tight stockings to show off his ‘virility’, and Polichinelle, who has a round belly and a falsetto voice.
Is Mardi Gras the same as Pancake Day in the UK?
It falls on the same day, but the celebration and treats eaten are not quite the same. In the UK, Pancake Day is traditionally known as ‘Shrove Tuesday’, and has many of the same origins as Mardi Gras.
In the UK, people may eat crêpe-style pancakes, or smaller ‘Scotch’-style pancakes, using a similar recipe to French beignets.
However, people in France are more likely to eat crêpes on Chandeleur – known as "Candlemas" in English – a lesser-known Catholic celebration on February 2.
Chandeleur, whose name comes from ‘Festa Candelarum’ (‘candle festival’) in Latin, signals the commemoration of the Presentation of Jesus at The Temple, a key event in Jesus’ early life.
Yet, Chandeleur also has roots in Pagan rituals and popular culture, including Mardi Gras, Carnival, and Lent, as well as the Celtic-Gaelic festival of Imbolc, another fertility celebration that saw people celebrate with parades and burning torches.
It later became a Christian festival. Crêpes themselves are thought to have their own meaning too, with their yellow and round appearance recalling the Sun in the sky, in celebration of longer days and more daylight coming for Spring after the long, dark months of winter.