Get your hands on some traditional French Bugnes, Merveilles and Oreillettes this February 21, and if you’re not sure what those are keep reading, because you’re not going to want to miss this.
To mark the beginning of the Christian Lent, a period of abstinence during which adherents traditionally fast for forty days, a practice of clearing out the larder in preparation gave rise to a tradition that holds to this day in all Christian cultures: of eating confections primarily composed of cupboard staples — flour, eggs, milk and sugar — that needed to be eaten up before the fast started. In some parts of the world, the occasion came to be defined by the rather restrained pancake. But in France, Shrove Tuesday has become an altogether sweeter, richer, more indulgent and jubilant affair, hence the name Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday”. And one of the key ingredients for the celebration is a rich, sweet and delicious doughnut, “beignet”, whose name depends on where you’re standing when you ask for one, and then another, and then another.
While sober-minded Protestants considered Shrove Tuesday to be a moment for quiet, restrained reflection before going into the Lenten fasting period, the Catholic southern part of Europe decided that it was actually an excellent opportunity to let rip before abstaining for such a long time. They needed something to give them the strength and courage required after all. The sweet, rich doughnut nut might be made from essentially the same ingredients as a pancake, and they’re all quick and easy to make and to cook in large quantities, but they’re an entirely different kind of being, a sweet treat that is frivolous, delicious and sinfully irresistible.
But the country that invented more than 400 kinds of cheese would never be content to leave things there. Instead, there are variations across the regions with preferences for different shapes and styles. Some are made with a batter that is more like the base for a brioche, some are denser, softer and fluffier, while some are smaller, flatter and crisper, and they could be called any of the following: beignet de carnaval, bougnette, bottereal, bugne, bugnette, crotte d’âne, croustillon, foutimasson, frappe, ganse, guenille, merveille, oreillette, rondial, tourtisseal, or simply, “I don’t know what it’s called, but that one there”.
However, having gone to the trouble of finding so many names, if you do happen to find yourself in France, it is best to know that they are used in an advisory sense only, and the name itself is less predictive of what you’ll actually get than the regional preferences specific to the place you happen to be in. Broadly speaking, those in the middle of France prefer their doughnuts to be soft and puffy, while those in the south prefer theirs crisp and crunchy. Thus, if you ask for an Oreillette in Languedoc, you should receive a cone of deliciously crispy, ear-shaped doughnuts, as is traditional. But ask for the same Oreillette in Nice, and you’ll be handed a softer, fluffier delight, as is typical for the region.
The Bugne has its origins in Lyon and is traditionally a soft and airy doughnut that might be flavoured with orange or lemon peel. Meanwhile, the Merveille is proudly very much a Southwestern delicacy. Not as crispy as the Oreillette, or as puffy as the Bugne, the Merveille might be flavoured with orange flower water, lemon juice, rum, or ideally a splash of Armagnac.
We promise we won’t make you fast for 40 days once you’ve tried them.