The Origins of The Beignet: A Carnival Delight and International Delicacy
The beignet, a simple piece of fried dough sprinkled with sugar, is a pastry that has managed to transgress cultural boundaries. Hong Kong has the ox-tongue pastry, Mexico has the churro, Germany has the pfannkuchen and Japan has the an-doughnut. The beignet has morphed into its own unique shape and taste in every country and has earned itself a place amongst local delicacies. Even chefs have reinvented the beignet and created international phenomenons (think Dominique Ansel and the famous cronut).
But where does the beignet originate from? Here we trace back the origins of the pastry everyone loves.
Though the beignet is considered a french pastry, the first beignet sighting can be traced back to Ancient Rome. In those times, March marked the start of a new year and people celebrated the awakening of the earth and a new agricultural year with mounds of pastries—which included pieces of fried dough covered in honey.
Fast forward a few hundred years when Christianity was born. The religion took over some of the Roman celebrations and dates and anointed them new religious celebrations. Lent—a period of 40 days of fasting, reflection and prayers to replicate Jesus’ sacrifice and his retreat into the desert—was one of them. The day preceding the first day of the fast became known as Mardi Gras, also known as Shrove Tuesday or Le Carnaval in France, when people would gather for a day of gluttony and excess.
In an effort to discard fattening ingredients such as eggs, milk and oil, people started creating little pieces of dough and throwing them in oil before sprinkling them with sugar, which helped feed the most amount of people at the least possible cost.
During Mardi Gras, everything was permitted, including the way you acted and dressed. Towns would turn into a colourful masquerade, with the most extravagant robes, wigs and masks flooding the streets. The celebration was meant to not only fend off demons but to also reverse the social order. Masks allowed anonymity, which permitted men to dress up as women, the poor to dress up as the rich, and vice versa.
Mardi Gras is still being celebrated today, and though adults may opt out of getting dressed up, children are still highly encouraged to wear the most ostentatious costumes and parade around.
The beignet recipe has evolved as well. Many will claim that their mother or grandmother’s recipe makes the best beignets, as many fond childhood memories revolve around the pastry.
"I have very strong memories from Carnival, it's a public holiday back home where we get to wear disguise and go in the street and celebrate and eat tons of beignets," says Gregoire Michaud, pastry chef and founder of Bakehouse. "I remember my mom making [beignets] during the whole day because our fryer was small. The house was full of that frying smell for days!"
As it was passed down generations, the recipe was tweaked and the different regions have made their own variations, even going as far as calling beignets by a different name (they are called Merveilles in Bordeaux and Bugnes in Lyon). Nonetheless, they play an important role in the celebration and are part of a tradition that is still very much alive.