I’m tough on crêperies. I can’t help it. I’m constantly comparing their crêpes to the ones of my French childhood summers spent in Brittany, the northwest peninsula of France and the crêpe’s birthplace. My great-grandmother made them in her two room farmhouse –– she poured the mixture of buckwheat flour, salt and water onto a billig, a hot, round, buttered, grill surface, then with her rozell, a small toothless rake, she spread this batter into a fifteen-inch-round sphere the thinness of butterfly wings. As the batter bubbled there and the edges browned, she coaxed the half cooked, wobbly, crepe onto her long, wooden spatula and flipped it over, intact. The crêpe continued cooking this way until completely golden, signaling to her to scrape this fragile delicacy gently off the billig with her spatula. From here she held the hot crêpe between her fingertips and the spatula. She then placed it onto a waiting plate, setting the crêpe down with the same carefulness as though she was putting a drowsy baby onto a pillow. She did all this while wearing her heavy wooden clogs so pointy they looked like Viking ships and her costume Breton which was the traditional black velvet, floor-length dress with a white silk flowery embroidered apron and a starched white lace collar that matched the white lace snood into which she gathered her grey hair every morning.
My great-grandmother served those dozen crêpes dotted with brown spots from where the butter had nestled into the flour during the cooking, every summer afternoon for the goûter –– the four o’clock break on my grandparents’ farm. The crêpes were piled on a plate next to a pale yellow brick of Brittany’s famous sea salted butter, which was never refrigerated, yet miraculously never melted but instead remained soft, perfectly receptive to spreading. We buttered our crêpes, rolled them tightly and they were then dunked into small handless bowls of black coffee. My bowl, also handless, contained hot milk instead.
I dunked along with my family. Then when I bit into the crêpe, it greeted my taste buds with its merry tang of nuttiness from the buckwheat while sweet and sour played off the butter’s salt and the sugar from the unpasteurized milk, which came from my grandfather’s cow, milked an hour before. And when I swallowed there was that familiar aftertaste from the buckwheat –– fragrant, as though I had swallowed a drop of cologne.
I ate that crêpe while sitting between my parents all those summer afternoons, along with my uncle, my grandparents, my great-grandmother at the wooden table on its matching bench in the kitchen, my feet not touching the floor yet. I can still see all of our hands mingling over the table, reaching for the crêpes, the butter, the coffee, the milk, like cars at a busy intersection, knowing when to yield to the others, when to proceed without touching. A ballet of precision. I can still hear my family’s voices, speaking in Breton, the guttural Celtic language of Brittany, interspersed with French. They spoke seriously of the farm work: what chores remained, what needed to be harvested and plowed, what field we were going to work in tomorrow and le temps, that all important weather, which ran the life of the farm.
So for me, crepes are more than just a stretched out cooked batter of flour, water, salt. I realize it’s a lot to ask of this chemical mixture, this scientific mélange, but their outcome, those crêpes –– they are my family, our shared meals, my gauzy childhood memories, they are my Proustian madelines. I don’t need a psychiatrist to tell me that. It’s simple.
With the exception of my uncle –– my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my parents have died –– but through the crêpes, through our food, I search for them. One bite of the buckwheat and that crêpe becomes my time machine. I’m immediately taken back to the summer of 1967, on a hot day in northwestern France, sitting between my parents. I hunt for those crêpes in America, my adopted home. I gauge all crepes against my past, my family, my country of origin and the way my great-grandmother made them.
I know, I know…. Those are some big and pointy clogs crêperies here in America, my adopted home, have to fill.
Lucky for me there’s Bon Appetit Café and Crêperie in Fairfield. In their colorful retro diner with a five-stooled bar, jazzy vibe and hearing the French accent of the waitress, I feel a flicker of excitement just walking into the place. They’re my people. They’re going to know how to make my crepe.
They don’t fail me. I order the classic, which is the leadoff crepe listed on their menu and it is also the first variety listed on all French crêperie menus. Called la complète, it’s ham, gruyère and a slighty fried egg all tucked into the buckwheat crêpe. The egg peeks out in the middle square of the crêpe like the see-through window on an envelope. The egg must be fried only a tiny bit, not to dry out the yolk, because the yolk will be punctured with the initial cut of the knife and its golden river will permeate into the ham, the cheese before it finally nestles into the crannies of the crepe. So, of course, it’s la complète -- with those mash up of flavors, what could be more complete?
When the waitress places the hot ham, gruyère, egg, buckwheat crêpe in front of me, I know it’s perfect already because there’s the familiar whiff of grass, rain and soil. Smells of the farm life. The scent alone opens the door to that summer day in 1967.
Cutting into the crêpe, the yolk does its leaking and permeating. The pore- like holes of the crepe made from the bubbling of the butter into the flour during the cooking interlock with my raised taste buds. It’s glorious. And I’m back my grandparents’ farm. Bonjour Maman. Bonjour Papa.
Here at the Bon Appetit Café and Crêperie, I taste the familiar nuttiness of the buckwheat, which I’ve tasted my entire life, it’s a though my great-grandmother is in the kitchen in the back of this restaurant herself, manning the grill. The ham, the cheese, the peek-a-boo egg, the crêpe, all dance on my tongue, turning on my nerve endings, tingling my synapses as they report to my brain that this is delicious and I understand that the crêpe is my food and that it will always be a link to my family, my heritage, my identity.
And further ameliorate this time machine episode for me, the Bon Appetit Cafe also serves the traditional accompaniment to the crêpe –– the apple cider, le cidre! Joy! The sharpness, cool crispness of the cider marries perfectly into the woodsy, buckwheat flavor. Excellent.
When the waitress hands me the bill and inquires if my meal went well, she has no idea what she has just asked. I want to tell her why I came here but I don’t think I’d be able to get the words out and I’d probably end up weeping, so I tell her simply all was well with my lunch, merci. I leave Bon Appetit Café and Crêperie satisfied to have eaten lunch with my ghostly family.
I continue my quest for my crêpe in Darien at Café d’Azur Mediterranean Bistro and Bar, a small but longish restaurant, decorated with colorful paintings of hidden courtyards of Paris.
I am delighted to see Café d’Azur also has le complète as the first listing on their crepe side of the menu. My heart does its usual little fluttering upon my reading it and I salivate immediately after placing my order. I’m ready for the time machine.
I’m perplexed, though, when they serve the crêpe correctly from the bottom: ham and gruyère safely intact in the square crepe shape, the nutty smell of the buckwheat rises like a vapor but there are field greens across where the egg should have been. The poor lonely egg lies on top of the greens instead and this causes a barrier between the triptych of flavors.
I never rearrange food on my plate in a restaurant, not wanting to destroy the creativity of the chef, but here I can’t help myself. I push the greens away with my fork and lower the egg to the crêpe. Perfect now. The time machine revs up and I touch my lost family again.
When I go to Café d’Azur a second time and order the same, the field greens are on the side this time but the egg lies on top of the crepe. I tell myself to eat it as is, but my hand begins to move and I find myself just folding the round sides of the fried egg into the square of the crepe, so that only the cheerful yellow yolk peeks out. The owner asks me what I’m doing.
“It’s okay,” I tell him, “I’m French.”
“Ahhhh…,” he replies.
“See in Brittany, where my family is from, we tuck the egg inside. That’s all, juste un petit adjustment. C’est tout. Oh and one more thing…” I hesitate but again I can’t stop myself. I hope he won’t be mad. He’s French himself, he should understand. But still. I take the leap and say, “the ham is not be shredded as you’ve done here, but instead just sliced and left as one entire piece with the cheese melting into it.”
“Ahh…..” he says, showing no reaction. But in a few seconds I’m relieved as he smiles and tells me, “I’ll have it made this way for you next time.”
“Merci,” I tell him and I believe he is being sincere.
I cut into the crêpe and all is well. I dined with my family that afternoon in a different manner. I felt my father, who was a French chef, pushing me the entire time to rearrange the crêpe and tell the owner the “true” way of the crêpe. “What is this? Shredded ham?” I heard my papa say, “that’s not correct. Ack. Mais non.”
I heard my mother’s motto also, “Doesn’t hurt to at least try. Just tell him about the shredded ham. At least try. Go on.”
Afterwards, the entire time I ate I felt my parents both watching me, content now that I was eating our crêpe. We were together once more. I was rewarded as I left by the owner telling me to come back again, “A très bientôt,” he bid me as I left. “See you very soon.” I knew I would be.
At the Chocopologie Café in South Norwalk, I love the dark, cozy, garnet red velvet décor and mellow atmosphere, making me feel like it’s the middle of the night when in reality, it’s lunchtime and sunny outside. I order their buckwheat crêpe and it comes pressed down tightly and folded over into a triangle like a paper fan. Cute, but sadly it’s no match to Bon Appetit and Café D’azur’s crêpes. When I cut into this pseudo Panini, it’s as though I’m sawing into the Sahara. The egg has been over cooked so it has dried up the butter of the crêpe and the juice of the ham. All moisture has been sucked into the chalky yolk. I eat it to satisfy my hunger but that is all.
This continues into the dessert apple compote crêpe I also choose. Inside the crêpe are ten small scattered cubed pieces of a Granny Smith apple. The thick sugary syrup texture of a compote, its jam-like consistency, is missing. I’m told by the waitress that is how this is served. I ask her for some chocolate sauce, so I can add some movement, some liquid, but it does nothing to erase my disappointment.
I don’t have my usual spectral experience but I do feel my father give me his silent classic Gallic shrug. Oh well. Maybe another time.
I smile and am curious when I’m served my roasted tomato and womanchego crêpe at Sugar and Olives prepared in a way I’ve never seen. I’ve been in these situations before where a restaurant forgoes old school and gives the crêpe a modern twist.
The day I was at Sugar and Olives, Jen, the owner told me she had run out of buckwheat flour and only had whole wheat, so I knew I would just be eating. Oh no, I wanted to say but it’s only noon, how could you have run out so soon? But I’m open to new experiences. And Sugar and Olives is new (to me anyway); this is not your typical crêperie or café, bistro or restaurant. It’s a renovated factory so there are large windows, painted over brick walls and a large, see through cooking area. It’s as though I’ve stumbled into someone’s kitchen. And living room. Upon entering, there is a low, square coffee table surrounded by two couches and two industrial bookcases housing magazines. There are two communal tables as well. The place is conversational, casual and gives one the impression that gastronomical experiments are tried out here to a receptive audience.
Back to my crêpe. Served as a very narrow rectangle and presented on a white plate of the same shape, the crêpe looks like it is lying on a small stretcher. Very clean, very Zen-like. My great-grandmother and my family would not recognize this contemporary take on their iconic food.
I take a bite out of the soft, glistening, compact crepe and I immediately miss the buckwheat. I’m surprised it is as golden in color as a dessert crepe, since whole wheat was used, I expected it to be darker.
The roasted tomatoes blend well into the cheese all huddled together but the crepe is not savory to stand up to the acidity of the tomatoes and mildness of the cheese. Unique though, in its presentation, it remains only food for me.
I don’t mind trying to eat my way back to my family and back to those childhood days on a farm where the work was hard and harsh words were sometimes spoken, but when the seven of us ate together around that wooden table, we lived in a bubble of familial love; a gentleness came over us, as though we were smoothed over by a soft warm breeze and we ate those crêpes as a respite from the difficult days and because we were family, connected, linked.
The search for my crêpe makes me think I should book my ticket now for the Festival de la Crêpe weekend, which takes place in July every year in Gourin, France, my mother’s hometown. There, of course, I could eat all those authentic crêpes and practically cuddle up to my lost family for the entire two days.
That would be my first choice and my second are the crêpes that come to me through the United States mail. My uncle sends them to me from France, from Gourin, three dozen sweet and one dozen savory. The label indicates they are made from a local crêpe maker, a person my mother spoke about often. But then that would be another essay.
Fairfield County Guide to Crêpes
Bon Appetit Creperie & Café 1879 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield, CT 203 098-3455
Café d'Azur Mediterranean Bistro & Bar 980 Post Road (Rte.1), Darien, CT 203 202-9520
Sugar and Olives 21 1/2 Lois Street, Norwalk, CT 203 454-3663
Chocopologie 12 South Main Street, South Norwalk, CT 203 854-4754
Caroline's Crêperie 55 Elm Street, New Canaan CT 203 966-9891