What to Eat in France: Galettes de Blé Noir, or Breton-style Buckwheat Pancakes
The buckwheat crêpes of Brittany are unique in the context of French cuisine. They go by many names: galettes de sarrasin, crêpe bretonne, galette de blé noir.
Crusaders brought back buckwheat from Asia in the twelfth century, but it proved to be hard to grow until they took it to Brittany, where there is always plenty of rain, yet the climate is not harsh and the soil is acidic: all the right conditions for growing blé noir, meaning literally “black wheat,” even though it’s not technically of the wheat family.
It was Anne of Brittany who had it planted it all over Brittany and made it part of the Breton diet at the beginning of the fifteenth century. It grows fast and is ready to eat in 100 days, so it helped feed Bretons for centuries, and is often referred to as “poor people’s wheat,” since wheat was only affordable for the rich in those days. It was probably used for gruel or very thick griddle cakes at the beginning.
It still took centuries before the buckwheat pancake as we know it to became popular. The original recipe, which dates from some one thousand years ago, contained only buckwheat, salt and water and was much thicker than the crêpes we know today, which also contain milk, eggs and regular wheat flour, giving a thinner crêpe.
On February 2, Catholics celebrate Candlemas by eating buckwheat crêpes together. For farmers, this date concurs with the end of winter and the beginning of the new farming year, so superstitious farmers keep the candles from this celebration lit to protect their future harvests.
Traditionally, buckwheat galettes are reserved for savory dishes, and are not used for dessert. The Bretons drink apple cider with them.
2.2 lbs. or 5 8/10 cups buckwheat flour
Pinch of coarse salt
5-inch crêpe pan or iron or other heavy frying pan
- Put flour in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle, and add egg. Stir.
- Gradually add water and mix for about 10 minutes or until batter is the consistency of mayonnaise. It should be fluid and smooth pour easily from a ladle.
- Lightly lard the pan and heat until the lard starts to smoke.
- Pour in a small ladle of batter, tilting and rotating pan in all directions or using a scraper to spread the batter evenly over the bottom of the pan.
- Cook over medium high heat until bottom browns, about 30 seconds.
- Use a small metal spatula to turn over crêpe, then cook for 15 seconds more on second side. When cooked, slide it out of the pan onto a plate.
- Repeat these steps until the batter is used up, stacking pancakes as you remove them from the pan.
- Serve hot.
Like with regular pancakes, the first few crêpes won’t be pretty. Don’t worry.
Galettes can be served with any savory fillings. The most common ones consist of ham, cheese and egg. If you plan to fill the pancakes, simply add the filling as soon as you turn them, and fold the edges over into the shape of a triangle, as shown in the photo.
I grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. I live in France and Switzerland, and am a freelance writer specializing in French cuisine. I attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France; At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. I ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with my two sisters in the U.S. I organize the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, am an active member of Slow Food, and run the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. My work has been published in numerous international publications and I have been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. I just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and am now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.