Let me start by promising you that I had every intention of writing an original piece about this coming Tuesday — known around the world as many things, but primarily as Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. I earmarked today as a chance for me to find out more about carnival food traditions in particular, because I know lots of countries celebrate carnival as spiritedly as we flip pancakes here in the UK.
But then I read the exact kind of story I had in mind (from food writer Miranda York) in the February edition of the Waitrose FOOD Magazine! Dang. It’s a lovely piece, but I know that the magazine isn’t free to read for everyone, and it also doesn’t feature any Mardi Gras recipes to try.
To bridge that gap (and in so doing avoid having to write about Valentines instead), I’ve picked some of my favourite facts from the feature and added a few discoveries of my own, all accompanied by links to recipes you might like to try in the coming days — whether you’re giving up anything for Lent or not.
Me? I thought I’d give up chocolate, sweets, biscuits and cakes with chocolate or sweets in them for Lent, but not cakes with fruits and nuts in them because I’m not a masochist.
- If in doubt, fry it
Fried doughnut-style treats are clearly the Mardi Gras treat du jour: during the Venetian Carnevale, cake shops produce fritole; in Hawaii they eat malasadas, brought over by Portuguese labourers. Hawaiians in fact still call the day Malasada Day, so integral are these sugar-dusted fried treats; New Orleans is famous for its pillow-shaped dough beignets but NOLA-born journalist Lolis Eric Elie wants the little-known calas to come back into fashion – fried doughnuts using cooked rice. Here’s his recipe on the NYT website.
- Let me hear you sing Carnival Time
If you fancy working up a carnival appetite, I recommend listening to this wonderful New Orleans Mardi Gras playlist. Kermit Ruffins & The Barbeque Swingers literally sing about the food of New Orleans, and I dare you not to feel joyous listening to this version of Carnival Time from Bo Dollis and the Magnolias.
If, like me, you wish this was a normal start to the year and that it was possible to get swept up in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations, I give you the DIY shoebox float and the drive-thru parade!
- C’est bizarre
Belgian Fat Tuesday tradition Gilles de Binche wins the oddity prize.
Picture yourself walking down a frosty side street in the town of Binche at dawn. Round the corner, men (only men) are stuffing their costumes with straw to create the silhouette of Gilles, a carnival character that has been around in the French-speaking Wallonian regions of Belgium since the 14th century.
Stuffing themselves with straw is just the beginning. They’ll proceed to go door to door to pick up fellow Gilles. Accompanied by the banging of drums, the men then put on identical (and freaky as hell) wax masks each depicting a pink face wearing green glasses. Armed with twigs or sticks to wave, and sporting clogs, it’s time to parade through the streets, stomping said clogs to ‘wake up the soil from its winter sleep’, as writer Regula Ysewijn puts it.
Those masks are then swapped out for hats festooned with the classic carnival addition of white ostrich feather plumes (real? fake? No idea) and oranges are lobbed into the crowd.
There is one part of proceedings I can completely get on board with however: the breakfast tradition of feasting on oysters, smoked salmon and Champagne.
- Pack your sardines
In true Spanish style, pre-Lenten celebrations cover a span of days, including Ash Wednesday itself, and food traditions vary from region to region, village to village.
In chef José Pizarro’s village of Talaván in south western Spain they hold what’s called ‘the burial of the sardine’. Symbolically it represents the burial of the past and a new start. (Perfect if, like me, you didn’t bother with new year resolutions…)
Practically, it involves a big barbecue in the main square, giant enough to grill sardines for the whole village, with enough sangria to ensure plenty of sore heads the next day.
Recreate this ritual with Pizarro’s Basque recipe for sardines marinated in cider and dust off that white or red wine at the back of the cupboard for these sangria recipes. Drunken 2022 Spanish holiday planning is optional.
Navigating away from fish and wine, Spaniards also celebrate Fat Thursday, or Dia de la Tortilla (day of the omelette). It’s held on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday so it has been and gone this year but I plan to embrace the savoury as well as the sweet and make a mini version of this Spanish Tortilla with chorizo next week. (Los siento as this one’s behind a pay wall).
- Move those trotters
In Rio, something substantial is required after hours of Samba dancing and carnival partying, and it involves trotters. Brazil’s famous carnival dish of feijoada can be made using pork and beef, or just pork. Probably best just to source a whole suckling pig for this one.
- Still, they’re flipping good
Prepared as I am to admit that much of the above completely tramples over the humble way we celebrate Shrove Tuesday in the UK, let’s not forget that some of us like to race each other in the streets while flipping pancakes.
As for what pancakes to make, in the Crowther household we turn to the gospel, this recipe by Delia Smith, which are surely the most classic type of pancake for Pancake Day. This wasn’t always the case though.
For a start, they were called ‘poor man’s’ pancakes in the 18th century and ale was often added to the batter, which makes sense when you factor in that it was more common a drink than water. But – surprise! – it turns out that ‘rich man’s’ pancakes were also a thing, featuring cream, sherry, rose or orange water and grated nutmeg.
Nowadays, the easier recipe reigns supreme but if you fancy giving the pimped-up pancakes a go, here’s Jane Grigson’s take.
And with that, I’ll just cut myself a slice of Seville orange and pistachio bread and be on my way to look up 2022 flights to New Orleans.