This grand list of pastries is somewhat misleading, as in fact there are but two varieties of these simple French patisseries, some originating from Savoy, others from Rome, all with similar recipes and similar traditions surrounding them. Traditionally they are eaten between the beginning of February and Mardi-Gras (Shrove Tuesday) just before Lent, when one must fast for 40 days and 40 nights up until Easter Sunday. Lent is a tradition that began in the 17th Century, decreed by the Church, to commemorate the 40 days of fasting that Jesus went through in the desert.
The justification of introducing Lent at the time was to give to the population a reason to endure the hardship in the last few months of winter when the winter reserves were diminishing, Depriving oneself during this period avoided the risk of famine before the Spring harvest arrived.
Some believe that the tradition of these pastries came from the need to use up the cooking oil, one of the forbidden foods, before Lent. Others believe it comes from the Ancient Romans who ate such pastries during the Carnivals that took place around the same time of the year. Nowadays, one can find such delicacies throughout France, notably in Lyon and Saint Etienne, and parts of Italy and Spain.
In Nice, they were originally only called by one name, “ganses” which has now become “bugnes” in most boulangeries and patisseries where they are sold. They were a family treat, easy to make, that the mother would make for the family around Carnaval time.
The recipe is simple: 1kg of flour, 1 sachet of yeast, a pinch of salt, 200g of butter, 200g of sugar, 6 – 8 eggs, 2 spoons of orange flower water and the zest of a lemon finely grated. Mix all the ingredients together, then add half a cup of milk and stir well. Leave to rest for 1 to 2 hours wrapped in a tea towel. Next, roll out the pastry to about 3mm thick and cut into diamond shapes of about 10cm in length. Create a slit in the diamond diagonally and pass one of the points through the hole. Deep fat fry the pastries until colouration then leave them to rest on absorbent paper. Finally, sprinkle generously with icing sugar and serve immediately.
I remember my childhood when my Mum got me and my sister to try and fold round the diamonds to make the distinct “ganse” shape. Unfortunately the results were somewhat mixed and resulted in more laughter from our Mum that it did successful ganses!
The ganses should be fluffy and the best I have found are in Nice in a patisserie called “Les Délices de Borriglione“, although these ones are not necessarily the traditional shape.
Les oreillettes are made in more or less the same way, but without the orange flower water and are usually crustier. The pastry is also rolled out a little thinner and cut into rectangles of 5 – 10 cm. These are found more often in Lyon and in Italy.
In any case, if you come to learn French with Azurlingua in Nice in February you can profit from the Carnaval and ask Yann to offer you some of his famous ganses, for which he is famous!