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Cuisson á la Maison 09/12/2009

Posted by brendan in La Vie en Paris, Leçons Culturelles.
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Devenir Indigéne

If you asked someone to name three French foods one response is guaranteed to be crêpes. These thin pancakes are as much a cultural symbol as berets, the Eiffel Tower and wine, and much more prevalent than questionable attire or hulking steel sculptures. Tormented views on class structures have prevented my early adoration, even after every third-rate coffee shop with a griddle began frying them up.

Paris is thick with crêperies, from fancy full service restaurants to over-priced stands crawling with tourists. Last spring Robin hauled our jet-lagged carcasses through the city streets and propping us up for vegetarian crêpes and cider. It was delicious, not horribly expensive and the proprietor talked about the organic origins of our meal.

More recently we celebrated Armistice Day by crowding Julie’s apartment and smearing Nutella everywhere, which was mostly disgusting. This second event coincided with Shannen’s arrival in Paris, jet-lagged and wide-eyed but sharp enough to pick up a box of crêpe mix for our house.

Denevir Indigéne

Experiments with French cuisine went shockingly well. Nothing was burnt, batter didn’t stain the floor, fillings gelled as though we knew exactly what we were doing. Beth dug through the fridge for cheese, spinach and mushrooms while Shannen relied on lemon and sugar, then Nutella and bananas. I was impressed and excited at the possibilities. Our kitchen rotates through a variety of dishes regularly but the foundations of rice, pasta, lentils and couscous can be painfully routine.

The box mix was fine, but between the inflated cost of packaged foods and a loathing for the packaging which presents them I thought it would be best to learn how to make the batter from scratch. We’ve got mixing bowls and wooden spoons, and the raw ingredients seem common enough. However I didn’t realize there’s an important decision to be made before hitting the store.

Crêpes originated in Bretagne, the historically Celtic region of northwestern France. One of the agricultural staples is buckwheat, a crop which flourishes in the difficult soil. In addition to several varieties of cake the Bretons created galettes, thin pancakes which could be filled with whatever was handy. The introduction of wheat flour resulted in a sweetened batter which was filled with fruits, honey or anything which could be considered dessert; these became known as crêpes. When wheat prices dropped and white flour was suddenly affordable, the batter became fluffier and the dish spread throughout the country eventually becoming as common as pizza is in America.

Denevir Indigéne

Julie had over-prepared for her Armistice Day crêpe party and we reaped the benefit of her overzealous cooking, making hearty meals the next day. Shannen’s box mix was most certainly flour-based, and while both were noticeably sweet the savory fillings didn’t suffer. However buckwheat has a high protein content with complete amino acids, is high in folate and B vitamins, and provides something called rutin which I’ve never heard of but supposedly helps your blood flow.

You can see the conundrum. Flour is common and cheap, but I haven’t found a large bag of buckwheat ready to blend. My immediate impulse is tradition or death, not wanting to sully my hands with some bastardized, Franco-fied variation of the recipe, but is it worth the additional time of searching and, presumably, higher cost?

Comments»

1. Antoine - 09/12/2009

Yes — using buckwheat is definitely worth it! A flour (sweet) crepe batter with savory ingredients is like a meat pie with dutch crumb topping… You should get yourself some buckwheat flour!

blaark - 09/12/2009

Very vivid comparison. Although even when I at meat I’m not sure I could have handled meat pie.

2. Suzanne - 09/12/2009

Worth it! Buckwheat crepes are delicious!

blaark - 09/12/2009

Well hell, if I knew you had these opinions I would have insisted on more than apple pie out of you. I’ll dedicate my first batch of gelettes to your honor– hopefully they’ll not go up in flames or stick to the ceiling…

3. sf - 09/12/2009

buckwheat also tastes good. maybe a consideration!

blaark - 09/12/2009

You just want me to be ready for when you visit.

4. Jo Ellen - 09/12/2009

I’m with them, buckwheat rules for savory flavors and it’s gluten free if you care about such things!
I’m so enjoying your missives and observations of life in Paris.
Je t’émbrasse de San Francisco,
Jo Ellen

blaark - 09/12/2009

It does look like there’s an obvious consensus going on here. I’m not terribly disturbed by the gluten factor but I am excited about using ingredients that provide more nutritional value. Not that this means I eat less of anything regardless.

Glad you’re enjoying things, and hugs to you back home. Thinking about returning anytime soon?

5. Anna - 11/12/2009

Any kind of flour with Nutella and bananas has to be good, just not necessarily good for you! And I am partial to lemon juice and powdered sugar crepes. xoxo

blaark - 11/12/2009

Honestly the Nutella is a bit much for me and my wretched foreign palette. Lemon and sugar was quite delightful, although we only had granulated– powdered sounds like the way to do it.

For dessert crepes I have no concern about using the wheat recipe, and I could survive utilizing the same for savory dishes despite Antoine’s unfortunately vivid portrayal of meat pies. But if we’re going to do it right– and why do it any other way– I think I’m only doing myself a disservice to ignore the more perfect marriage of buckwheat and salt. Frankly I would probably use enough butter and cheese to utterly reduce the health benefits of buckwheat over wheat.

Also, I hope that your comments here do not reduce your chances of becoming a policy maker in nutrition should you choose to pursue that goal. Should C. Everett Koop begin snooping around the premises I’ll quickly cover up evidence of your gastronomic indiscretions.

6. Green Eyed Pie - 16/12/2009

I say try it both ways! I have and both are good for different reasons and I like a slight sweetness to my savory crepes. My mom used to make turkey crepes with a tyme and mushroom bechemel using a slightly sweet flour based crepe and it was fantastic, and I am not a turkey lover! As for meat pie, I make those as well and they are fabulous if I do say so my self. More of a British thing then French, but tasty all the same. Food should be fun and adventurous while still honoring its roots. Don’t take it too seriously just make it and eat it and if you like it do it again!

blaark - 20/12/2009

Don’t take it seriously? But I’m trying to integrate myself into this foreign culture and I don’t need to invite ridicule by doing crepes wrong!

No, of course that’s not an issue. The Parisians I’ve met are hardly defenders of tradition– most of them eat McDonald’s more than once a week. I’m not actually ideologically opposed to the mixing of sweet batter and savory filling but I have an impulse to attempt the historically accepted buckwheat standard. The fact that this requires a little more thought and care– like figuring out what the hell buckwheat is in French– made me waffle. Thankfully people have been forthright enough to badger me into taking the extra steps.

And after succeeding I will feel quite entitled to being lazy and resorting to the sweet crepe batter. Or you can have your mom come out here and do it for me, sans turkey.


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