From Candlemas to Mardi-Gras: crêpes!!!
The end of winter is celebrated in many countries by making pancakes, crepes and other blinis, all of them a symbol of the returning sun. Brittany is no exception, but in a country where poverty dominated until the middle of the 20th century, Breton crepes were a cheap and easy way to feed not only a family, but often a farm crew as well.
As we delve into the matter, we are going to discover that it is actually rather complicated, owing to the territorial differences between Eastern Brittany and the Western half, with subtle nuances between North and South, coastline (Armor) and hilly interior farmland (Argoat), and even history…
The basic, rather thin, white wheat-based “crêpe” comes from Eastern Brittany.
Its thicker counterpart is called galette or krampouez in Breton-speaking Brittany, and designates the ones made with buckwheat, or black wheat. The latter started being cultivated in the poor soils of Western Brittany by the 18th century, and did very well, so it was readily adopted as the diet basis. It could be simply folded and dunked in buttermilk, or, if the family was not dirt poor, an egg, a slice of ham. Even a Breton sausage could be added. Until the 20th century, cheese was not seen as edible in the countryside, where it was called Laezh brein (rotten milk). By comparison, today, Brittany produces more Swiss cheese than Switzerland!
So what happened?
I have in my kitchen the bible of Breton cuisine by Simone Morand, who spent a lifetime traveling to farms and villages, gathering recipes. Her book was published in 1965, and she notes that there is a total decline in the consumption of crêpes and that it is to be expected that they will completely disappear… Fifteen years later, with French tourists invading Breton beaches, crêpes made an unexpected and quite spectacular comeback.
This is not the place to expound on the development of tourism in Brittany, but we can mention that it is closer to Paris than the Riviera. The beaches are equally pristine; bathing, fishing, boating are all easily accessible. And in the 80’s, it was cheaper than going South. The Bretons thought they could feed all these hungry tourists in three ways: little booths selling freshly garnished crepes by the beach, crêpe restaurants (crêperies) in town, and ready-made crepes you could buy by the dozen at the bakery or the food store, and heat and garnish yourself. On top of that, every fair, pardon (pilgrimage), and often festoù-noz (night dances), invite local crepe-makers to make and sell their products on the spot.
There are today 4,000 crêperies in France, with 1,800 of them in Brittany.
There is no count of the booths, they keep popping up all over the world. And the ready-made crepes, often industrial and not particularly tasty, are a success. Because selling crepes is an assured money-maker given the low costs involved, this has become serious business. Interested crepe-makers often don’t need to start a business from scratch, many crêperies can be bought from a retiring owner.
However, making proper crêpes or krampouezenn is an art.
There are several crepe-making schools in Brittany, teaching the proper way to make them, the economics of buying the ingredients, the management of a crêperie, etc. The equipment is simple: you need a large round flat cast-iron griddle, preferably heated by gas, called a billig. The electric ones work too, but the taste and consistency of the crepes are not the same. Next to the griddle, you will keep a large bowl with the batter and a ladle, with a small water bowl to rinse the ladle between crêpes. And now the unique tools of the trade: the rozell (like a small wooden rake without teeth, it’s size has to be the radius of the griddle) and the spanell, a wooden spatula with sharpened sides and a pointed end, to lift and fold the crepe.
The difficulty resides in getting a handle on the movement of the rozell.
Once you have poured the batter on the left side of the bilig, a very delicate movement describing a comma will spread the batter clockwise. A second and maybe a third comma will be required; but as you close the circle. You need to learn to invert the position of your fingers as the rozell balances lightly on the batter. Beginners can go through an entire bowl of batter without being able to achieve anything but little shreds. But once you master the rozell, your crepes will only need to be garnished and folded. You will see in homes or at fairs that the old guard crepe-makers are using two bilig side by side. They cook the first side on one of them, and when it’s ready, flip it with the spanell onto the second one, where it gets garnished. No half-cooked crepes there!
So it’s easier to go to the crêperie.
In the old times, like forty or fifty years ago, the menus were as simple as could be: you could add an egg, or ham, or sausage, or even what became a classic: egg, ham and cheese. And it is still what you will find on the menus at fairs and pardons. But under pressure from the tourists, new ingredients started appearing: mushrooms, asparagus, smoked salmon, andouille … To the point today the menus reflect the fact Brittany is the first agricultural region of Europe! And sweet crepes can be even more inventive, from the simple addition of honey or jam, to elaborate desserts with ice-cream, chantilly cream, fruit, nuts…
There are caveats: not every crêperie or crepe merchant is selling what the Bretons would consider a real crepe.
For one thing, buckwheat flour is hard to come by, in spite of the resurgence of ecological mills. Most of it comes from China, sometimes Bulgaria, and does not have the richness and the aroma of the local buckwheat. The ingredients also deserve some vetting, since smoked salmon can be coming under plastic from Germany! But you can have faith in the gastronomic guides and the “Made in Brittany” label to find a quality crêperie. And I don’t want to sound too chauvinistic, but Quimper/Kemper as the largest number of highly rated crêperies.
The industry of the crepe is a healthy one, which supports auxiliary industries: the cider makers for one (crepes are accompanied by cider, or maybe sometimes coffee), the buckwheat farmers whose specialty almost disappeared three decades ago, the bilig makers, and also the woodturners who make the rouzelloù and spanelloù.
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