The Crêpes of Paris

Today’s post comes from ACCENT Paris Programs Coordinator Audrey Casabielhe, who delves into the complex history of Paris’ most iconic treat: the crêpe.

If there is one treat that rhymes with Paris in everybody’s mind, it is crêpes! Having a delicious crêpe by the Pantheon or Eiffel Tower is just glorious. There is actually a lot of history behind this treat, so let’s discover it!

The Crêpe, or “Kraz” in the Breton language, started its official history in the region of lower Brittany (Basse Bretagne) in the northeast of France. The people of Brittany (the Bretons) had difficulty growing anything in their region as the soil quality was poor. After trying (and failing) to grow several cereal grains, the Bretons finally learned how to grow buckwheat (introduced by way of the Crusades), and that was the only cereal that could thrive in the hard conditions.  

By the 13th century, the savory crêpe was born. People would eat them as a main dish with ham and cheese or as an accompaniment with soup. One of the first crêpe recipes in existence is from an old medieval French cookbook dating back to 1390 called Manger de Paris.

The crêpe has also been linked to the Catholic celebration called the Chandeleur for centuries. The Chandeleur is a religious celebration commemorating the return of light and fertility for the future harvest. Nobody really knows when the connection between crêpes and the Chandeleur celebration started, but every February 2nd people light candles all over their houses and dine on crêpes.

Of course, during the 13th century, crêpes were very different from what we know as crêpes today. The sweet white wheat flour pancake version of this dish that we all know and love actually appeared during the end of the 19th century. During this time there was a massive immigration of Breton people to Paris, with the core of these Breton immigrants establishing themselves around the Montparnasse railway station area.

The growing availability of white wheat flour in the Paris region allowed the Bretons to open little crêperies in the neighborhood. These restaurants specialized in crêpes and galettes (buckwheat flour crêpes with a savory filling) and served crêpes as a dessert to ladies and gentlemen of the high society. During this time, crêpes became more and more popular and are now widely consumed.

Today the crêpe is a favorite Parisian dessert, snack, or meal that can be found all the over the city. However, the Montparnasse neighborhood is still the historic heart of the Breton crêpe. Strolling around this neighborhood, old crêperies can be found still in existence, with the most famous street of them all, Rue d’Odessa, nicknamed the Street of Crêpes.

Bon appétit!

~Audrey Casabielhe, ACCENT Paris

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