Rebecca Schofield

Chapter 4

Mardi Gras

Fat Tuesday

There were 14 pairs of French eyes looking at me quizzically.  The question had been asked by the committee, "Who will roll out the pastry for the prune tarts at 6am on Mardi Gras?"  Fortunately, I had been listening to the discussion and knew the answer.

I sometimes drift off into a reverie of French-filled small talk as all the committee members chatter at the same time and the conversation drifts over my head, but on this occasion I got the drift, and the fall guy was me.

It’s really lovely having the title of ' Reine de la Pâte', but it does have its disadvantages, the biggest one being rolling out the stubborn brioche pastry at 6 am for prune tarts on the day of Mardi Gras.  By 8 am the tarts are ready to go over the road to be cooked by the boulanger and I will just about have recovered from actually seeing dawn break.

Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, is a Christian celebration reflecting the practice of the last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual practice of fasting during Lent.  It is celebrated in many different ways.  The tradition dates back thousands of years, well before the onset of Christianity, to pagan spring and fertility rites.  The day is celebrated all over the world by the presentation of magnificent carnivals and huge meals.

When Christianity arrived and was accepted legally in Rome during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (AD306 to 337), the religious leaders decided to incorporate these popular traditions into the new faith rather than attempt to abolish them altogether.  As a result, the excesses and debauchery of the Mardi Gras season were channelled into a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of fasting between Ash Wednesday (the day after Mardi Gras) and Easter Sunday.

Traditionally, the days leading up to Lent would be filled with carnivals, festivities and bingeing on rich fatty foods, meat, eggs, milk, lard, cheese, etc., in anticipation of only eating fish and the simple meals of fasting.  Interestingly, the word 'carnival' is derived from a Latin word, carnelevarium, which means to take away or remove meat.

Being one of the two English members on the committee of the local Troisieme Age, (the other being my long-suffering husband who found himself there by default), has enriched our lives in France by helping us to integrate into the French community.  The club is part of an international organisation for people at the third stage of their lives, i.e., retired or semi-retired folks, usually over 60 years of age, and is designed to keep the seniors off the streets, as it were, by giving them stimulation, education and fun.  (The U3A in the UK is a similar organisation).

There is, normally, a club in each village in France, and although they all may work slightly differently, they have at their foundation the same principles.  Each year, our village club runs a lotto, a concours de belotte, subsidises two catered-for repas a year, runs a picnic and Mardi Gras, catered for and served by the committee.

There are also monthly 'goutiers' which are themed social events, meeting to play card games and eat seasonal delights - crêpes in February, strawberries in the season, bûches de Noël towards Christmas, etc. - and arranges two outings a year, one of several days' duration and the other for a day trip.

This year is the Costa Brava for four days and a day in Perigord.  Visits to places of interest are arranged.  Being a French organisation, the food is always something to anticipate and is invariably regional fare.

There are also monthly 'goutiers' which are themed social events, meeting to play card games and eat seasonal delights - crêpes in February, strawberries in the season, bûches de Noël towards Christmas, etc. - and arranges two outings a year, one of several days' duration and the other for a day trip.

This year is the Costa Brava for four days and a day in Perigord.  Visits to places of interest are arranged.  Being a French organisation, the food is always something to anticipate and is invariably regional fare.


Below are a few photos of the meal.

The menu for the Mardi Gras repas this year prepared by our club was the same as ever:

Kir,

Soup (the cabbage and pot-au-feu stock)

Pâte of Pheasant and Venison

Choux Farci (the stuffing being made with minced meat, breadcrumbs, lard, garlic, parsley and large quantities of eggs - not to everyones taste, but I love it!

Pot-au-Feu (traditional recipe below)

Cheese and Salad

Tarte aux Prunes...

... all along with vast amounts of bread and wine.

The stuffed cabbage, before and after cooking

The pheasant and pigeon pâte.

As the pot-au-feu is such an established dish, I am including the traditional recipe and method used by the French for many years.  You may not wish to make it, but it could be of interest to you.

Many French eat pot-au-feu at the weekend.  It's a staple of the French diet, cheap and easy to do, and with its different variations in leftovers, lasts all week.  Pot-au-feu literally means pot on the fire, and used to be a cauldron bubbling over an open hearth.  We have one in our garden which we have adapted to use as a barbecue. not very efficient, but very decorative.  A pot-au-feu is always made with beef, cheap cuts that need ample stewing, with onions, leeks, carrots, turnips, sometimes swede and parsnips, but always with potatoes, all of which would be readily available from the potager or storage shed, and should stew for hours and hours until the meat is meltingly tender and the vegetables, some of which are just added half an hour before serving, are tender and colourful.

Recipe and Method

1,500 g stewing beef - try a mixture of cuts
A marrow bone per person
A piece of celery, a bay leaf and some thyme to make a bouquet garni
9 large carrots
One large onion
4 cloves
8 small turnips
8 leeks
8 cloves of garlic
4 parsnips (optional)
4 swedes (optional)
8 large potatoes
3 star anise
Salt, pepper, pickled gherkins

Preparation, Day 1

In a very large saucepan, place the meat (but not the bones) in enough cold water to cover it all amply.

Add the onion, into which you have inserted the cloves, the star anise, a small handful of coarse salt, the whole garlic cloves, the whole green top of one leek, and one carrot cut into small pieces.

Bring to the boil and simmer for 4 hours.  Place in a cool place until the next day.


Preparation, Day 2

Skim any solidified fat off the top of the contents of the pan and remove the leek greens, the star anise and the bouquet garni.

Peel the carrots, cut them in halves or quarters lengthwise.  Top and tail the turnips, leaving the peel on.

Wash the leeks and remove the tougher parts of the green leaves.  Cut them into two pieces.

No need to peel the potatoes; just scrub them clean and cut into two or four if they are too enormous.

Peel and cut the parsnips and swedes into pieces if you are including them.

Place all the vegetables and the marrow bones into the pot.  The marrow bones will add flavour, and if you like beef marrow, will add an extra treat on your plate.  Bring to the boil and simmer for half an hour.

Serve each person a helping of meat, vegetables and a marrow bone.  dd only a little of the bouillon (soup).  It is nice to mash the potatoes in it.  Place toasted bread, coarse salt and gherkins on the table to accompany.  The marrow should be extracted from the bone.  Spread on toast with a little salt on top.


Preparation Day 3

Strain off some of the liquid into another saucepan.  Add some very fine vermicelli, heat for 10 minutes, and serve as soup with crusty bread.


Preparation Day 4

Boil some salad potatoes and season while hot with white wine, olive oil, salt and pepper.  Add a chopped shallot, a chopped, hard-boiled egg, some chopped parsley, and the rest of the pot-au-feu meat in 1 cm cubes.  This is a really excellent cold salad.


Preparation Day 5

Mix up whatever vegetables are left with the remaining bouillon - I tend not to mix too much - to leave a rich coarse soup.  It has become concentrated and is particularly flavoursome.


So with very little effort on Days 1 and 2, you will have ready-made dishes on days 3, 4 and 5 as well!

And here are a couple of recipes you may like to try with left-over pancakes... if you happen to have any left after Pancake Day!

Aperos

With a round cutter, cut circles of pancake and goats cheese, or any other you would prefer.

Spread chutney or sauce on one round, put the cheese on top, then more chutney, and after that, the next round of pancake.

Top with cream and lump eggs.

You can vary this in any way you would like.

BLT Pancake

On one half of a warmed pancake, spread some mayonnaise and add 2 slices of tomato.

Season with salt and pepper.

Add then a rasher of cooked bacon and fold the pancake in half and eat.


And as a splendid easy dessert...

Strawberry Pancake

Allow 100 g strawberries for each pancake.

Cut all but two into half, or smaller if they are large, and remove the leaves.

Put them in a mixing bowl and add 3 tbspns of thick cream and 2 tbspns of sugar, then mix together.

Fold a pancake into a cone, fill with the strawberry mix, then garnish with the whole strawberries and bought strawberry sauce.

© 2018 Sylvia Teale