Today is El Jueves Lardero in Spain, Giovedì grasso in Italy, Weiberfastnach in the Rhineland, Tłusty Czwartek (Fat Thursday) in Poland and Tsiknopempti in Greece. It is the first day in the Carnival season, which reaches a climax on Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday when the 40 days of fasting before Lent begins. Last year it was on February 16th.
In Poland, the tradition is to eat pączki which we call doughnuts and the Germans call Berliners. (remember when Kennedy made that famous speech in Berlin and said ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, well what he was saying was ‘I’m a doughnut’). The doughnuts traditionally should be made with red jam, but now people can use cream, or almost any sort of sugary addition.
Spain is more savoury, where tortilla are eaten but also eat sausages, bacon, and pork on that day. In Catalonia, they eat tortilla with butifarra.(which are sausages in the Roman tradition). Here is a recipe for butifarra.
In Italy giovedì grasso is when “the fooling and the mumming, the dancing, shrieking, and screaming would be at its height.” according to the English writer Marie Corelli in her book Vendetta (1886). For more on Fat Thursday and El Jueves Lardero.
Butter Week & Lardy Cake
There are some indications that the week before Shrove Tuesday in the Anglo Saxon period was one of merriment and eating the things that were not allowed in Lent. So in Old English this week is Cheese Week or Butter Week, and there was a Cheesefare Sunday. (‘Winters in the World’ by Eleanor Parker).
But I cannot find any references to traditions of a fat Thursday or a Lardy Thursday in the UK. But we do have the fabulous Lardy Cake, it is a cake that drips with sugar and pig fat, and is one of my very favourite cakes. The main ingredients are rendered lard, flour, sugar, spices, currants and raisins. I was brought up on Chelsea Buns, Spotted Dick, Lardy Cake and Sticky Willies (iced buns). I am surprised I wasn’t an overweight child!
It is by no means a countrywide cake. My own theory is that it was a delicacy of the West Saxons. And I fondly imagine King Alfred tending to the Lardy Cake when musing about defeating the Vikings. I have bought it in Woking and Guildford in Surrey, in Winchester (Alfred’s Capital), Reading, and the best were sold in Cornmarket in Oxford, in the since closed Woolworths. These are all in areas controlled by Wessex in the 9th Century.
When lecturing at Worcester I found a variant of it which is called Worcester Dripping Cake and Worcester is in the Kingdom of Mercia. Wikipedia says Lardy Cake is from: ‘southern counties of England, including Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Gloucestershire.’ But I have never found it myself around Stonehenge, or in Dorchester, nor in the Cotswolds. So I would say Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire are the lardy cake heartlands. It is said to have been originally for special occasions, so maybe there once was a Lardy Thursday tradition. It feels like there should be one!
And here, courtesy of the BBC and the handsome (but possibly a little ‘lardy’) Paul Hollywood of Bake-off fame, is a recipe for Lardy Cake. Please make it and feel that wonderful English Pudding feeling of a lead weight in your stomach.
The recipe says ‘This recipe has a generous amount of dried fruit in a rich dough that’s lighter and less sweet than most shop-bought lardy cakes’. So, it’s not going to be entirely authentic!
Following posting this page on Facebook Heike Herbert posted this response concerning ‘Women’s Fast Night on February 8th in Cologne or Koln:
Aristotelis Psitos emailed me to say that the Greek Orthodox ‘Fat Thursday is not until 16th February.