Considering the huge Mardi Gras celebration that usually takes place in the States in la Nouvelle-Orléans, you might expect there to be a big celebration here in France too. But if Aix is at all indicative of the rest of the country, you'd be wrong.
However, it should come as no surprise (since this is France) that even if the culmination of the week-long jours charnels marked by Mardi Gras is no longer really observed, there are still traditional food items to be eaten in celebration of the day. It should also come as no surprise (since I am writing this blog) that I will tell you about them.
A couple weeks ago bugnes, oreillettes and pets de nonne started appearing in pâtisseries around Aix. (Before I go any further, I should say that whether bugne is just another word for beignet is up for heated, or at least animated, discussion and also that there's a significant amount of variability in what gets called an oreillette. What is common to all three of these pastries is that they involve the frying of some kind of dough, broadly construed.) The custom of making and eating these treats comes from the custom of celebrating and general excess that preceded the fasting period of Carême, or Lent, as well as the practical tradition of using up all the stores of butter, oil, eggs, sugar, etc. that you wouldn't be using so much during the next 40 days of fasting.
Bugne is just, according to one of the women in the bakery where I buy my bread, a provençal variant of beignet or "fritter"/ "doughnut". According to her colleague, bugnes have to be sort of triangular in shape (like the ones they have at the bakery and the ones on this website ... scroll down half way) and beignet can be any shape at all (and even filled). In any case, the available bugnes were fried in peanut oil, so I didn't get any of those.
Instead we got an oreillette and a couple of pets de nonne.
The oreillette, which in non-culinary contexts translates as something to do with the ear -- an earphone or something like a clip-on earing -- is the one that's on top (the one that there's just one of!). Sadly, I don't know the origin of calling these pastries oreillette. This version of the oreillette is the yeasted-dough version. For every recipe you find for this kind, there's another recipe for the thin, crispy, fried cookie-like version. However, the thin ones I've seen at various pâtisseries around Aix since we got here and the yeasted ones I've only seen more recently.
It's just a little crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside and it wouldn't be sweet at all, if not for the powdered sugar. It tastes not unlike New Mexican fry-bread. We liked it, but the real favorite were the irreverently named, but sublimely delicious pets de nonne, or "nun's farts".
If that looks like choux pastry, that's because it is! It's a two-bite, fried, orange-flower (unfilled) cream puff that has been dusted in superfine sugar. Choux pastry never tasted so good! If I'd known how good they were, I'd have been eating them every day for the past two weeks.
As for how the pastry got its colorful name, one theory is that the current name is a corruption of the real name, paix de nonne. According to this theory, they were given the name when the nun who invented them gave the recipe to a neighboring, enemy convent and thus assured the paix, or "peace". Alternatively, they may actually be named after a nun who had gas at an inopportune moment. This story goes that the nuns at Marmoutier Abbey in Tours were busying themselves with meal preparations for the feast day of St. Martin (and the Archbishop's blessing of the relic of the St. Martin's cape) when a noviciate farted loudly and, embarrased in front of all the other sisters, let a spoonfull of choux pastry fall into a vat of hot fat.
If all embarrassing moments could result in such deliciousness!
So that's Mardi Gras old-world French style -- no beads, no parades, no debauchery, but really good things to eat.