These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a town in France that doesn’t feature a quaint little crêperie, serving up super-thin pancakes in a range of sweet and savory forms. The feather-light crepe (pronounced with a hard e [“-ep”, not “-ape”]) is a French staple, sold in restaurants and street vendors all over the country. Paris in particular boasts a street-side crepe vendor in every neighborhood, and Parisians and tourists alike flock to these tiny kiosks for a portable French lunch or snack.
Be it slathered in nutella, sprinkled lightly with sugar or dripping with cheese, the crepe is an important item on the French menu, and even the French calendar (see below). But despite the crepe’s widespread presence across the Hexagone, and indeed the world (especially in Japan) this little buckwheat pancake had its humble beginnings in a specific area of western France.
Breton Roots: The Origins Of The Crepe
Once isolated from other areas of France on its rocky promontory in the far west, the region of Bretagne (known by us English-speakers as Brittany) has a historic – and enduring – identity all its own. Geographically closer to Britain and with a reputation for residents with a slightly more “British” comportment than the rest of the French, the Breton landscape is rocky and open, its coastline dotted with steep, wild cliffs.
Traditionally, not much grew on the Breton moors. But when buckwheat arrived in Bretagne in the 12th century, it took to the harsh landscape right away. The Bretons made the most of this fiber-rich, high-protein grain, grinding it down and combining it with water and a touch of salt to create a batter. With a dab of butter on a hot surface, the batter was spread with a wooden scraper into a flat, round shape, then flipped, folded and filled with whatever was local and fresh. Though white flour has sometimes been used since the 20th century (known with some derision as crêpes de froment), crepes are still made in this way today.
February 2: Day of the Crepe
But the crepe is not just an easy, cheap and delicious food; it has cultural significance and a dedicated day on the French calendar. Historically known as the Virgin Mary’s Blessing Day, February 2 in France is now better known as le jour des crêpes (‘the day of crepes’), and is more of a familial custom than a religious celebration. Also named La Chandeleur (‘the return of the light’), the date commemorates the winter’s decline and the coming light of the spring. Families celebrate this moment with a meal of crepes together.
The day also has a cheeky superstitious element. According to legend, if you hold a coin in your writing hand and a frying pan in your other, flip a crepe and it lands flat, your family will be prosperous that year.
Traditional varieties, modern reincarnations
Certain aspects of crepe-making have remained constant since its advent in the 1100s. Spreading the batter onto a very hot surface for 30 to 60 seconds, each side is cooked until it looks like the surface of the moon. Sweet and savory versions have always existed; traditionally lemon and sugar, and ham, cheese and egg. When consumed sitting down, they are usually paired with crisp apple cider, preferably from Bretagne as well.
But variations on the crepe are constantly appearing. In 1895, grand chef Henri Charpentier worked for the Café de Paris in Monaco, where he helped make the crepe an important food in the fine restaurant. One evening, the Prince of Wales dined at the Café de Paris, and requested a luxurious crepe dessert. In a moment of inspiration, Charpentier threw some orange and brandy onto a crepe and lit the whole thing on fire. The iconic crepe Suzette was born, and named after the Prince’s dinner guest that evening.
These days, you’ll find all kinds of modern variations on the traditional crepe in French restaurants, from salted caramel to melted dark chocolate and poached pears. Popular savory combinations include goat’s cheese, swiss-style Emmenthal, mushrooms and even stewed vegetables like ratatouille.
Its name derived from the Latin crispus, meaning curled, the humble crepe can be dressed up in all manner of ways, but it essentially remains the paper-thin delicacy it has been since the Middle Ages.
What’s your favorite crepe variety? Please share in the comments below.
By Gemma King
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