Somehow, when I think of crepes, I automatically see a guy in a tuxedo flaming a copper pan of Cointreau tableside. White gloves, silver utensils, a heavy and starched tablecloth. Crêpes suzette — butter, sugar and orange liqueur — was the go-to move of my parents’ generation for capping off special dinner parties; I remember my dad flipping and flambéing, not in a tuxedo but definitely with a cravat.
But then I worked one gray wet winter in a crêperie in France, in a real cow town in Brittany, that was also a bar and a tabac. Farmers left their tractors idling outside and came in for a quick glass of red wine, and to buy cigarettes and lottery tickets. At 8 in the morning! And here I came to know the crepe in an entirely different way.
The guy who worked the big black cast-iron flattops wore only a T-shirt and loose dungarees and an often-dirty apron. He didn’t make crepes; he made galettes de sarrasin. These are large, savory crepes — as big as hubcaps — made with only buckwheat flour and topped with various things. My favorite was Gruyère and ham and a sunny-side-up egg: the complète. Sometimes made even more complète with a garlicky, acidic escarole salad mounded right on top and a bottle of the local hard cider to drink.
I now forget if his name was Jean-Claude or Michel, but when he arrived in the morning, he beat eggs and flour, without even measuring, in big plastic bowls (the kind meant for dishwashing or hand laundry), using enough liquid to make the batter thin and runny. He wasn’t particular. In went half bottles of the hard cider, or water from the tap, or a big draft of one of the beers on tap — Stella Artois or Kronenbourg.
Farmers and farmers’ wives, truck drivers and their families, weekend soccer clubs — everybody piled into that little place on the corner, in that little town where even the fog smelled of manure. They sat, without formality, at bare tables, on rough rattan chairs, and ate these gorgeous, tasty galettes at any hour of the day. Before church. After school. The bank teller came for his lunch break.
I just don’t know why we do this to certain things: How did the utilitarian, sturdy, totally accessible crepe come to be thought of as a tuxedo-and-white-glove kind of meal? And how did we come to think of it as something intimidating to make? It’s a pancake, after all. A freakin’ pancake (pardon my French). That said, in fact, the first few never, ever work out. If you don’t tilt and swirl fast enough, you’re left with a half moon in the pan, or if your batter is too thick, you end up with a spongy disc. Straight out of the gate your confidence is rattled, it’s true. But know that it’s this way for all of us — even for Michel or Jean-Claude, who cranked out perfect galettes all day and all night otherwise and used to christen his griddles every morning with his first few disasters, scraping the duds with his long metal spatula right into the trash bucket at his feet, with a little flourish of the wrist and one hard clank on the griddle top to ceremoniously ring its death.
You’ll always lose a few in the first couple of rounds. Throw them out. Too thick, too thin, lopsided — it takes several swirls and ladlesful to get the motion and timing down. Batter thickens up? Add a little water, a splash of beer, a glug of hard cider. It’s not precious. Once you’ve hit your stride and the galette starts to set up, you immediately crack your egg and lay in the ham and add the grated Gruyère. By the time the egg is cooked, the cheese will have melted, the ham will have warmed through and the crepe itself will have a crisp exterior that tastes dark and nutty as the buckwheat toasts in the dry pan.
A hard cider, pulled from the cellar, neither fridge-cold nor kitchen-warm, is the thing to drink. And this earthy galette, with its rich and fatty toppings, deserves a superb one in spite of its humble ingredients and lack of pretension. Seek out a true Norman hard cider in a bottle from your wine store, not a can of oversweet, soda-pop-ish “spiked” apple drink that you now find in any supermarket aisle — dumbed down and passed off as “hard cider.” That’s another way, though in the opposite direction, that we confuse things that shouldn’t be confused.
Recipe: Buckwheat Galettes Complètes