While Americans watch expectantly for the groundhog to emerge on February 2, the French will be flipping crêpes with their families.
Known as Chandeleur in French and “Candlemas” in English, this event mixes pagan, Celtic, and catholic influences, and is named after the candles used for a pagan ritual celebrating the arrival of the harvest. In 472, Pope Gelasius I decided to combine this celebration with that of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple 40 days after his birth. Today in France and Belgium, this “festival of light” is a chance to indulge in delicious crêpes!
The French crêpe is a cousin of the American pancake, but is much thinner. No raising agent of any kind is used, and this difference is what makes the U.S. versions thicker and more consistent. Pancakes are also associated with breakfast and brunch, whereas crêpes can be enjoyed at dinner, for dessert, or even as a snack.
“Crêpes have been around since time immemorial; their origins date back even further than bread,” says Martine Bleuzen du Pontavice, a culinary writer and buckwheat specialist.* Crêpes exist in a multitude of forms all over the world, including Russian blinis, Mexican corn tortillas, Ethiopian injera flatbread, and even puffed rice cakes and cassava bread. “If there is grain, there will be a type of crêpe,” she says.
Brittany is the French region where the most crêpes are consumed. These variants are made using whole-wheat flour and accompanied by a sweet topping. Those made with buckwheat are known instead as galettes, and are thicker with a fluffier texture. These savory versions are traditionally served with ham, an egg, and cheese for a main meal, but there are countless different recipes from andouille sausage to vegetables and even raclette. “With the gluten-free trend, restaurants are now offering sweet galettes as a dessert,” says Martine Bleuzen du Pontavice.
The Ancient Superstition Behind Flipping Crêpes
The recipe couldn’t be simpler, and requires 3.5 tablespoons of butter, 2 cups of milk, 1 3/4 cups of flour, and 3 eggs. Sweeten the batter to taste, but don’t forget that these whole-wheat crêpes are served with jam, chocolate, sugar, or honey. “You can also add different flavors to the basic batter,” says Martine Bleuzen du Pontavice. Vanilla, rum, beer, and certain locally-made liquors such as calvados are popular options. As for resting the batter, the specialist says she has “never found that it made the slightest difference.”
Chandeleur is also the chance to revive an ancient superstition: If you successfully flip a crêpe with the pan in your right hand while holding a coin in your left, you will have a prosperous year! If you want to stack all the odds in your favor, put the batter through a sieve or a blender to ensure it has a smooth consistency. Then pour a ladle of batter into a hot pan with butter, and turn it to ensure the whole surface is covered. When the edges start to brown, it’s time to flip it over — or gently turn it with a spatula if you are feeling cautious. And if you botch any of them, then don’t worry! In Breton farms it is customary to say that “the first crêpe is for the dog, and the last ladleful is for the cat!”
* Martine Bleuzen du Pontavice, Crêpes & galettes du froment au blé noir, un tour de Bretagne gourmand, Coop Breizh editions, 2012.