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Food, Drink & Health

February 2 – Time For La Chandeleur (Crêpes)

Petit Josselin interior
Petit Josselin interior Breton style for crepes and galettes

Put away the galette des rois recipe, it’s time to make the crêpes.

The story of the French galette and the crêpe begins with religious and secular customs, the seasonal calendar and candles.

Legends say that that these round pancakes represent the sun and that spring begins in February; and that to ward off moldy seeds to be sown in the spring, a galette is made with last year’s buckwheat. Legend also says that around 492, Pope Gélase I, is known to have offered crêpes as nourishment to pilgrims who walked to Rome for a religious event forty days after Christmas.

And I thought a crêpe was just a modified pancake recipe from my Swedish cookbook!

Crêpes and galettes in France are serious business. They even have their own season. It lasts from February 2, La Chandeleur (Candlemas), to Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday (a flexible date). Customs, traditions and commerce are involved in this annual event.

Why February 2?
Without going into detailed calendar history, the beginning of February symbolized the end of winter and the return to the fields. In the Roman and Gaelic calendars, spring began on February 6. The Celtic calendar established spring as the first day of February, which later changed to February 2.  According to the Celts the birth of the first lamb, usually the beginning of February, meant fresh milk. In our modern calendar spring is related to the solstice, about eight weeks later. In some ways the dates of old calendars are still in use.

European secular traditions for the February 2 date involve animals, the planting season, and the weather. European tradition used a bear and its shadow to predict spring’s arrival. As tradition crossed the Atlantic, the bear evolved into the ground hog in the United States and Canada. A sunny day means winter is six months longer; a cloudy day, spring is around the corner. If the groundhog sees its shadow, it goes back to hibernate. With darkness turning to light, candles played a large role in this February month. Thus the origin of the festival’s name for candles – La Chandeleur or Candlemas.

In the secular sense, processions with lit candles were meant to keep away the bad spirits, bad weather, and death; the candles lighted the way for good omens for the spring planting and summer harvest.

In the religious context, parishioners and pilgrims walked in procession with blessed, lit candles celebrating the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple during Mary’s purification. According to Mosaic tradition, this purification occurred forty days after giving birth to a child (in other words, February 2). Candles are not even mentioned now, but food continues to be the source of the ritual.

Breton pottery dots the chimney in the crêperie; a large chunk of Breton butter sits on top of the shelf in front of the chef

The difference between a galette and a crêpe
Everyone knows a crêpe, but it has a relative, the galette, which is based on buckwheat (sarrasin/blé noir). Traditionally, you begin your meal with a galette filled with meat, poultry or cheese combination, drink Brittany cider (brut) from a small pottery bowl and finish with a crêpe filled with something sweet for dessert. The galette and the crêpe are made with different ingredients; the galette is based on a flower or a weed and the crêpe is based on wheat.

Over the past 9,000 years the ingredients of the galette were made from all sorts of cereals and served as a basic staple. The galette is made from buckwheat and is gluten free. Its original recipe was water, salt and buckwheat. It hasn’t changed much; they added an egg.

Buckwheat is believed to have its origins in Asia. In one version of the story, the Crusaders (Google Translate) brought the triangle shape seeds of the buckwheat flower to France during the 1100s.  Another version of the story has the buckwheat being imported from Holland to Brittany (Bretagne). Brittany possesses the climate and soil most favorable for growing this flower.

The galette has a basic shape — round. Some people use it as a dessert either because they have an allergy or because it can be made into a delicate, sweet galette by altering the ingredients.

The crêpe, however, with sugar and flavorings added comes in various shapes. In Carcassone, Florence’s family eats oreillettes, Monsieur Voiriot, originally from Lyon, produces bugnes at his Paris boulangerie for the crêpe season. Both recipes add the liquid fleur d’orange. In Champagne, crêpes are known as tantimolles, vautes in the Ardennes region, roussettes in Anjou (Maine-et-Loire) and crupets in Gasgogne.

Christophe Felder, grand chef-pâtissier offers a crêpes recipe for chandeleur. He directed the  2013 Figaroscope best croissant in Paris tasting.

Buckwheat versus Flour
Wealth separated the class structures in France and separated their baking ingredients as well. Buckwheat was seen as lesser than wheat. French landowners used wheat for their breads and used the buckwheat as a thickener in their soups. The farmers and lower classes used the buckwheat for everything. During the various French revolutions of the 1800s, a democratization process took place and wheat was no longer reserved just for the wealthy. It became available for all (when there wasn’t a famine) and by consequence buckwheat lost its influence in cooking.

A popular custom of the past was flipping the crêpe for a good harvest. Farmers flipped a crêpe to the top of an armoire; the crêpe supposedly attracted the mold so the seeds for sowing would not get moldy and would produce a good harvest.

Another custom for luck and prosperity involves flipping the crêpe while holding a gold piece (Louis d’Or) either in the hand holding the frying pan or in the opposite hand. If you want to be successful at flipping your crepe, the Journal des Femmes Web site (Google Translate) will tell you how to succeed with the “art form” and the proper recipe. The crêpe must stay within the pan! Watch the video – let your batter rest an hour before pouring into the hot pan.

For prosperity, Nicolas’ family would put the Louis d’Or in the palm while holding onto the frying pan handle, flip the crêpe, fold the gold piece in the crêpe and place it on top of the armoire. Today, the tradition stays the same except no one leaves it on top of the armoire anymore.

Dominique and her daughter use a one euro piece in place of a gold coin. Dominique flips her crêpe for prosperity and luck. Salomée, her daughter, flips hers about twenty times and makes a different wish each time.

Elodie’s family eats crêpes the evening of February 2, but she forgets why.

France follows this annual ritual in the preparation for making the crêpe. The newspapers run photos of crêpes and suggested recipes. By the end of January the magazine, Figaroscope, rates the best galette restaurants in Paris. However, sometimes the best Paris crêperies are kept a secret with admonitions to not tell anyone else. The crêpe stands can also be an excellent alternative. The Paris Mayor’s office has a crêpe vidéo for you. The Web site Linternaute Magazine lists crêperies with ratings, prices and location.

On February 2, the day that I was looking for a new frying pan, everyone else was buying a crêpe pan. I already had one; had already made sweet and non-sweet crêpes and did not even know there was a date to start the season.

Judging from the number of crêpe pans sold when I went shopping, the number of crêperies along the rue du Montparnasse and the innumerable crêpe stands in the capital, there may be a season, but in practice, the Paris crêpe season continues ad infinitum.

Le Petit Josselin
59 rue du Montparnasse, 75014 Paris
Telephone : 01 43 22 91 81
Metro: Station Edgar Quinet, Place Edgar Quinet (closest)
Station Vavin, 108, Boulevard du Montparnasse

If this article seems familiar, it is an updated version of “A crêpe today keeps the mold at bay” originally published in February 2010.

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