Visitors to the Morvan in winter are mystified by displays of crêpe pans, electric crêpe makers and free crêpe recipes appearing in the supermarkets in January. A little early for Pancake Tuesday, surely? Well, yes. But February 2 is La Chandeleur, Candlemas, and pancakes are obligatory.
I can never resist an excuse for a spot of research. According to the official website of France, www.france.fr , Candlemas commemorates the purification of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of baby Jesus 40 days after His birth. Like Christmas, this is a pagan festival which was adopted by the Christian church.
Clicking on Lupercalia took me to wikipedia.org/wiki/LupercaliaWikipedia is not always academically respectable, but let’s put aside our misgivings. It seems Lupercalia was a festival in honour of the god of fertility and shepherds – Pan to the Greeks, Lupercus to the Romans – with torchlight processions and streaking through the streets. Lupercalia was celebrated in mid-February and is thought by many to have been the origin of St Valentine’s Day. It sounds fun. Plutarch wrote:
At this time many noble youths and magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.
Be that as it may, apparently in 472 AD Pope Gelasius I moved Lupercalia to 2 February and renamed it the Purification of Mary. Later the flaming torches were replaced by church candles.
Where do the pancakes come in? According to the france.fr website – and surely they should know –
At the beginning of February, crêpes were distributed to pilgrims arriving in Rome. It was at this time of the year that the winter sowing season began. The extra flour was used to make crêpes, a symbol of prosperity for the year to come. The French have a saying which translates: If you don't want sooty wheat, eat crêpes on Candlemas. Another custom: flipping the first crêpe with the right hand while holding a piece of gold in the left hand.
Unlike some dodgy MPs, flipping is not my strong point, but the thought of a prosperous year was a great incentive. And so I clutched a euro in my left hand (louis d'or being unobtainable) and flipped my pancake with my right. It landed on the worktop…
Our local supermarket hands out crêpe recipes, but there are dozens on the web, including this video. The lady does not flip, alas.
Crêpe batter is runnier and eggier than the mixtures of my youth; it makes thin, delicate pancakes, perfect for what our little son called Craps Suzette.
And now we come to Le Saint Valentin, when the February issue of our monthly free magazine, Le Criquet, carries a great many advertisements for Valentine’s Day meals and gifts. But the village of Saint-Valentin in the Indre, not very far from us, is the place to go on 14 February.
It seems to be the only St-Valentin in France, although I came across one in Quebec.
I found disappointingly few romantic Valentine cards in our local shops. There are websites to send your love electronically, of course. My favourite has two hands forming a heart, with the Eiffel Tower in the background.
One French Valentine’s Day custom has, mercifully, been banned.
This is the “une loterie d’amour,” which was eventually banned by the French government because its practice got too uncontrollable. See Valentine's Day Traditions in France by Ashley Anderson.
During "une loterie d'amour," single men and women would enter houses that faced opposite each other and call to one another until they had paired off. If a man was not particularly happy with his chosen partner, he would simply leave the undesirable match for another woman.
After the pairing off had finished, women who were left single built a large ceremonial bonfire and burned images of men who had hurt them. During this ritual, the women would also yell abusive remarks and swear at the men. This was the aspect of the celebration that got too out of control to allow the custom to continue.
More romantically, the same website tells the tale of the first modern Valentine's Day card.
Supposedly, Charles the Duke of Orleans sent the first modern Valentine's Day card, along with poems and other love letters, to his wife from his cell in the Tower of London after being captured by the British at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
Shrove Tuesday falls on 17 February this year. The reliable www.france.fr website gives the official line.
This is copyright-free and it is worth quoting here.
Lent was a period of fasting, which meant “eating thin” until Easter. Mardi gras was therefore an occasion for people to empty their cupboards and have a feast in order to finish all the “fat” foods in the home, including meat and eggs.
The day of Mardi Gras is marked by popular gastronomic traditions. People still prepare pancakes but also “carnival doughnuts” or bugnes. These doughnuts existed as far back as Ancient Rome. Pancakes and doughnuts were an opportunity to finish reserves of eggs and sugar, and fill up with energy before the fasting period. Nowadays, it's mainly about indulging in the sin of gluttony with family and friends.
Carnival comes from the Latin carne levare, which means "to remove meat", or in other words, prepare for Lent. It is a traditional time of entertainment and forgetting about life's worries before the strict Lent period begins, and there are Mardi Gras carnivals throughout the whole of France, in Dunkirk, Cholet, Nantes, Cherbourg, Mulhouse, Chalon-sur-Saône and Albi, etc. The most noteworthy of them all is the Nice Carnival, which was the first carnival in France, and one of the most famous in the world. It is known for its flower parades, giant cardboard masks and floral floats.
Cardboard masks and floral floats are scarce in the Morvan, but beignets (doughnuts) and bugnes are much enjoyed. Bugnes originated in Lyon. This recipe serves 20 greedy people.
• 2 sachets dried active yeast (1 per 500g flour)
• 1kg plain flour
• 120g caster sugar
• Grated zest of 2 lemons
• 160g butter, melted
• 8 eggs
• A chip pan or similar (I have an electric friteuse)
• Icing sugar for sprinkling on the bugnes
Combine the yeast with 4 tablespoons of lukewarm water and let stand for 15 minutes.
1. Add the yeast mixture to the flour, then add all other ingredients. Stir with a spoon at first and then knead the dough with your hands.
2. Cover and let dough rise for several hours in a warm place.
3. Once your dough is ready, heat the oil in your chip pan.
4. Meanwhile, flour your hands and the worktop and roll the dough out with a rolling pin and cut into shapes.
5. Fry a few at a time until golden.
6. Drain the bugnes on kitchen paper, then transfer to a serving dish.
Sprinkle with icing sugar.
There is a beautiful picture of bugnes on here.
Together with husband John, Rosemary Border Rabson emigrated to the Morvan in rural Burgundy in 2005, where few other Brits have ventured. Rosy's chief preoccupation is Charity Cottage, a holiday cottage which she runs in aid of Combat Stress. The holiday cottage, in their garden at Maré le Bas in the Morvan, has its own website, www.charity-cottage.org.uk which has links to Combat Stress.
Rosy and John Rabson are taking bookings for Charity Cottage, the home-from-home in rural Burgundy which they run in aid of Combat Stress, the Veterans' Mental Health charity.
Click on www.charity-cottage.org.uk and start planning your relaxing break now!