Recently I had the opportunity to go to a provençal carnaval. From February to April here in France there are many such celebrations of springtime and the banishing of the greyness of winter. Whilst most of us know this festival as a christian feast, carnival is a costume party that has existed for more than two thousand years with an enduring seasonal emphasis. In roman times, servants and masters were known to exchange dress for a temporary and definitely superficial reversal of role.
In France the christian culture provided the motivation to celebrate this festival as it coincided with the start of lent. People used up their richest, most fattening ingredients in a ‘last hurrah’ to fried food before the start of the fast. During the middle ages, when people were known to celebrate more than one hundred festivals per year, the carnival was a hugely noisy, debauched party of food and drink and the church turned a blind eye to this frivolity for a day*.
With the waning emphasis on religion, the secularity of France, the carnival has once again veered back to a seasonal party. Primary schools and maternelles prepare during the later parts of winter towards carnival, whether it be for the procession of the quartier (neighbourhood) or the larger event for each city. In some places in provence the children participate in different schools to construct parts of a carnival man, the caremantran.** On carnival day he is then carried in a colourful costume procession to a local park, where his body parts are all united for the first time. At his feet are stacked wooden vegetable crates, straw and other flammables. Whether made by children at school or a prebuilt city version, caremantran is always present in provence to be burnt as a spectacular finale!
A rather oddly disguised master of ceremonies whips the crowd into a frenzy with a mock trial for carnival man who stands forlornly as he is charged with causing all kinds of winterly nastiness from bitter cold weather to nasty flu.
The crowd erupts with a ferocious din of brule le! (burn him) and at this point the poor fellow is set on fire.
As an outsider seeing this spectacle for the first time is quite bizare. It rouses some sort of question as to whether or not this is some kind of curious, enduring souvenir to the french revolution, with its rather joyful appetite for a public execution!
All they need is to sell programmes for the entertainment as at the Place de la Revolution*** in 1793!
Caremantran is reduced to cinders, which fly away in the spring wind. The crowds disperse from the central square to groups of skittling children, chatting parents and lines to cue for sweet fried foods, fairy floss, cans of silly string. His skeleton hangs smouldering, the on-hand fire brigade hosing down residual flames. Fritters anyone?
Pets de nonne are a deep fried choux puff that are fun to make and require a rather energetic hand to stir. Start with a roux of butter, water and flour that are turned with a wooden spoon to release its grip on the saucepan sides.
Cool slightly, the eggs one by one makes a curious slippery, fragmented mixture that needs to be beaten well. With a little effort, it comes together to make the silkiest smooth, shiny dough. I love to look at this swirly mass and enjoy a few extra turns to make some curls and arabesques….
Rested, the dough is then scooped into spoonfuls and dropped into hot peanut oil, where they shimmy about, inflate and turn a lovely golden colour.
Rescued from the oil before they darken, the little balls are drained on absorbent paper. Dredged with icing sugar, or granular sugar they can be eaten warm but my family prefer them cold.
Oh and Pets de nonne, did I hear you asking what it means? Quite appropriate to the gaiety and silliness of carnival, it translates to ‘nun’s fart’….. well you did ask.
Pets de nonne
(translated and lightly tweaked from B Caramel, Le nouveau live de cuisine, Editions Gautier-Languereau 1927, p 259)
1 ‘good glass’ of water – I took that to mean a mug!
1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar
60g of butter
2 tablespoons of rum (optional)
1 tablespoon of orange flower water (optional)
1 litre of peanut oil for frying
Icing or castor sugar for serving.
In a saucepan place the water, sugar and butter. Bring to the boil then add little by little the flour whilst mixing with a wooden spoon. The dough should be very thick and smooth. At a low temperature, allow to cook for about 10 minutes turning constantly then remove from the heat. When slightly cooled add an egg, beating vigorously then the second and third. Leave to rest for about an hour. They can be perfumed with orange flower water and rum when adding the egg , if desired.
Taking little nut sized balls of dough, place them in the hot oil and fry for about 6 – 7 minutes, drain and sprinkle with either castor or icing sugar. Serve hot or cold.
*Miquel, Pierre, Au temps des chevaliers et des chateaux forts 1250 -1350, La Vie privee des hommes, Hachette, Paris 1976
**Caremantran translated from Careme – entrant, Lent arrives.
***Place de la Revolution is today’s Place de la Concorde, renamed in 1795