Traditional French crêpes are something we have all heard of and perhaps tried. It’s not like an English pancake on shrove Tuesday although it is thin and sweet. Less well-known is the savoury Breton galette which looks similar but darker with a totally different flavour. It has toppings like egg and ham. That’s a basic description but how are traditional Breton galettes and crepes made?
A farmhouse cookery demonstration
Whilst on holiday in Finisterre last year our hostess Monique, a farmer in Brittany, gave us a fabulous demonstration of Breton crêpes and galette making. Monique prides herself on her traditional skills and many of her extended family gathered around for the event, it was quite a party.
Monique has a whole kitchen island dedicated to her cast iron crêpe plate called a “billig”. It’s a serious matter! This billig has been seasoned for six months before it’s considered good enough to make a proper galette. To prepare the billig she uses a damp cloth and egg as it heats up.
The galette is made with black buckwheat flour which has a slightly bitter flavour. It’s seasoned with Guerande sea salt which is only suited to savoury food. Guerande is a large town further down the south Breton coast, famous for salt marshes. Monique also added water and egg. She did the quantities by eye, using her experience to get the measures right.
At the same time, Monique mixed up a batter for crêpes using plain white flour and a pinch of table salt. To this she added eggs, milk (which I think was not pasteurised) and melted farmhouse butter. She included quite a lot of white sugar. There’s no sugar in my shrove Tuesday pancakes in England, and I know that sugar can make batter quite difficult to handle, so that caught my attention.
Cooking on the billig
Monique had a traditional wooden spreader (a rozell) in her right hand and a ladle full of buckwheat batter in her left hand. She quickly poured on the batter and pulled it neatly over the surface of the billig with the rozell. Once the edges curled up, she flipped it using a wooden paddle and then rubbed a huge lump of butter over the whole surface. She added ham and egg and folded in the corners to make a square. It looked very neat.
Then I had a go. Immediately I made a hash of it, I couldn’t spread the batter quickly enough and once it was turned over it looked like a dish-rag.
My husband did a bit better, which was irritating of course. Then the other guests had a go with mixed results while we ate some of the proceeds.
Buckwheat pancakes are certainly an unusual flavour. We had tried them in a couple of cafés and had a very salty meal. Monique’s galettes are streets ahead of anything we tried elsewhere but in my family only my husband is a big fan.
Next we moved on to the sweet crêpes. As I expected, the sweet batter was tricky to spread. They cooked in no time and were light and delicious. We were glad we had skipped breakfast as we filled up on crêpes and chocolate sauce. My children were in their element.
It was a great experience to have this time with a French family learning a traditional skill from their region. I was a little reluctant at first because of the language barrier, but in the end this was one of the highlights of our holiday. By the end of the morning I was speaking fluent Franglais and no-one minded. From now on I always want a local masterclass on my foreign trips!
If you want to have a go with a French sweet crêpe batter, try this traditional recipe. French pancake day “La Chandeleur” is 2nd February but I think these are great on any day.
500 g of plain flour
250g of butter
250 g caster sugar
1 litre of milk
A tiny pinch of table salt
Set the butter to melt. Mix the flour and sugar. Mix in the eggs, then the milk. Lastly add the melted butter and stir thoroughly. Cook thinly in a hot, heavy pan which has been wiped with a damp cloth and butter. Serve hot with a chocolate sauce.
Traditional crêpe recipe from here, adapted with tips from Monique.