Fat Tuesday, Mardis Gras, Fastnacht, Carnevale. Whatever you call it, Europe marks the day before the start of Lent with celebration and feasting. In the past, Catholics abstained from eating certain foods during the six weeks before Easter—meat, eggs, milk, and butter, to name a few. During the Middle Ages, these foods were not just prohibited at Lent; they were banned. Since food preservation wasn’t what it is today, people had two choices. Eat the food or let it rot. As a result, many cultures developed recipes to combine several ingredients into one sweet or savory dish. Here are a few famous European Fat Tuesday eats sorted by nation of origin.
At first glance, it may seem odd that Germany’s most famous Fat Tuesday food is a pastry. Shouldn’t it be a meat dish? A sausage of some sort? Nope, it’s a doughnut-like confection. The fastnacht served an important purpose at Lent in the past when uneaten animal products and by-products would rot. The fastnacht recipe makes fantastic use of three prohibited Lenten foods—eggs, milk, and lard. In that way, the fastnacht hits three birds with one doughnut.
While I can’t find any information on the fastnacht’s origins, we do know the treat is named after the holiday itself, which translates to night before the feast. It is popular to this day, especially in Pennsylvania. Many Pennsylvania Dutch bakers serve the pastry still and some restaurateurs have put their own spin on it. In 2014, a brewing company in Hershey developed a fastnacht ice cream sandwich and some restaurants offer a burger on fastnacht buns. (Watch out, Paula Dean.)
The Spanish name for Fat Tuesday is Jueves Lardero, which translates to Lard Tuesday. With a name like that, does it come to any surprise that pork is the star of many Spanish Fat Tuesday dishes? A Belgian in-flight magazine encourages tourists visiting Spain to try “relleno de carnaval, a dish of pork intestines stuffed with cured ham, garlic and saffron cooked over a slow flame, and chicharrón, a deliciously textured dish made with crispy fried pork rind.” In other words, don’t forget to try some pig with a side of pig sprinkled with a little pig dust.
Different parts of Spain enjoy different foods and many of them contain pork. In Soria, the youth eat pigs cheek in a dish called merienda. In central Spain, chorizo sausage and eggs are baked into a bread called el hornazo. The rhyming dish Jueves Lardero chorizo y huevo—which also contains chorizo and egg—is popular in the Castilla-Leon region. But the Spanish—like so many other European cultures—have a sweet dish, too. The pina is a popular pastry in Soria made with flour and honey.
Great Britain and Ireland
The British refer to Mardi Gras as Pancake Day for a very obvious reason. In order to use up any excess butter, milk, and eggs, the British made pancakes. The tradition goes as far back as the fifteenth century when pancakes were much larger and flipping them required a bit of skill.
Perhaps more interesting than the pancake itself, is the folklore and traditions surrounding it. If the eldest eligible daughter in an Irish family successfully flipped the first pancake, it was believed that she would be married within the year. According to Irish Central, ‘Lent Crocking’ was a popular custom in which “children would pass from house to house asking for pancakes. If they weren’t given any, broken crockery would be thrown at the door!” It appears that another pastry, the hot cross bun, has British roots, as well. In the past, people considered the first three pancakes holy. They set those pancakes aside, sprinkled them with salt, and marked them with crosses. Over time, the pancake was swapped out for buns.
Italy’s Fat Tuesday celebrations are called Carnevale. Like Germany’s Fastnacht and England’s Pancake Day, baked goods dominate the Carnevale celebration. The castagnole—an Italian-style fritter—utilizes milk, eggs, and butter. Though Italians fry it in oil today, they may have cooked it in leftover lard in the past. The frittelle is a softer version of a castagnole sometimes filled with cream. The sanguinaccio—a sweet custard made of pig’s blood and flavored with dark chocolate—is by far the strangest dessert on the Carnevale menu.(This blood pudding was beautifully featured on an episode of NBC’s Hannibal.)
I think I’ll forgo pig’s blood and go straight for the pasta. Lasagna is also a Carnevale dish. It requires three ingredients banned during Lent: cheese, meat, and the eggs used in making the pasta sheets.
Andrea Cefalo is a medieval fiction author and history blogger. Her debut novel The Fairytale Keeper was a quarter-finalist in Amazon’s 2013 Breakthrough Novel Contest. The sequel–The Countess’s Captive—was published earlier this year. She is currently working on the third book in her series.
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