Buckwheat: shaping a regional French tradition and helping an allergy

As someone who likes crêpes, I looked forward to tasting them in the country that made them popular. And when in France, I particularly looked forward to tasting them in Brittany or tasting those made in the Breton style given the tradition that this northwest region of France has made out of crêpes. As it turned out, French crêpes, by and large only refer to crêpes with sweet fillings. So, what about savory toppings and crêpes in France?

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Galettes look like crêpes but are strictly not called so. They are always made using buckwheat and tend to be darker, deeper in flavor, and crispier than a crêpe, and they are only served with savory toppings, the most common version being, galette complète, that has an egg with a runny yolk, and some ham and cheese.

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While the traditional Breton galette is made from just buckwheat flour and water, it seems more straightforward and contemporary to use a combination that also includes either some wheat flour or eggs and milk or all three.

Here's a method to make galettes:

Buckwheat flour

Wheat flour or eggs

Butter

Salt

In a bowl, mix three parts buckwheat flour to one part wheat flour along with some salt. Add about one to one and a half parts water to one part flour mixture to make a batter the consistency of cream. Beat the mixture with a wooden spatula for about five to seven minutes to develop gluten and a slightly gelatinous batter. Alternatively, the batter can be made using only buckwheat flour and no wheat flour, but with eggs - one egg for about half a cup of flour. Refrigerate batter overnight for water to incorporate into flour. Next day, bring the batter to room temperature, mix, and add water if required to make a flowing batter. Heat some butter in a heavy-bottom, preferably cast-iron pan at low heat. Pour about a quarter cup of the batter to the center of the pan and spread into a thin layer. Cook galette until the edges start to crisp and lift-up. Flip the galette and cook for a minute or so before serving them hot. If using toppings like in a galette complète, cook the second side for a shorter time, flip back to the first side, add toppings - and break the egg into center - fold edges to form a rectangular packet and cook at low heat until toppings are done.

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Gluten is a protein found in wheat that gives wheat flour dough its elastic property when kneaded, and so, bread uses wheat flour rich in gluten whereas tender, crumbly pastry uses lower gluten flour. The protein, in contact with water forms a network that traps and disperses water molecules, in the process stretching itself, or in other words it incorporates water into the flour in a way that results in elasticity1. So, it would be interesting to know, how a batter with just water and buckwheat flour - that has no gluten – spreads into a nice thin layer on a pan, as seems to be the traditional method in Brittany? Until then, it helps to make use of the protein content of wheat flour or eggs when making the batter.

An allergic reaction to gluten is the reason why some people develop celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the prevalence of which seems to be increasing in the general population, as also evidenced by the growing interest in gluten-free flour and gluten-free products. It has been shown that the worldwide incidence of gluten-intolerance ranges from 0.5% - 1%2. While genetics plays a role, there appears to be a correlation between a diet rich in gluten and increased incidence of gluten-intolerance. For instance, people in northern India who have relied on a wheat-rich diet for a long period of time unlike those in the south who tend to eat more rice, have a higher incidence of gluten-intolerance than their southern counterparts2. So, is it important to balance diet with different grains?

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Crêperie in Rennes, Brittany

 

 

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Prominently displayed sign for a local favorite, galette saucisse (a sausage wrapped in a galette) by an open-air market in Dinan, Brittany.

 

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Street side vendor of galette saucisse in an open-air market, Dinan, Brittany

Sarrasin in French refers to buckwheat, and according to the Larousse French dictionary, in the Middle Ages it referred to the Muslim people presumably indicating the Middle-eastern origin of buckwheat in France. There is a sense of simplicity that seems to accompany galettes: the few ingredients required for its preparation; the way it is served – with minimal savory accompaniments, like just butter; the way it is eaten - unlike in the rest of France, this dish is eaten with an accompanying drink of cider, not wine; where it is eaten – galettes are enjoyed as street food just as much as in a sit-down meal; and, the ease with which its main ingredient can be grown – buckwheat grows rapidly and efficiently in soil conditions that are considered generally poor.

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Galette made Breton-style with lots of buckwheat flour and served with a bowl of Breton cider at a crêperie in Paris

 

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Galette with cider at a crêperie in Rennes, Brittany

 

In France, the word galette refers to many culinary creations – it literally translates to something round and flat – however, in Brittany, the word takes a distinct meaning.

Given how sharply and uniquely, history and geography have shaped the tradition of galettes in Brittany, and given the fact that galettes in Brittany seem just as popular as crepês if not more, it is puzzling then as to why there are crêperies that serve crêpes and galettes but no galetteries that do the same, even in Brittany. Not to mention, the French festival, La Chandeleur that on the second day of February, celebrates crêpes but not galettes.

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Post script:

The crêperie La Maison de Joséphine in Rennes, Brittany shows support by sharing this blog post on its Facebook page:  https://fr-fr.facebook.com/pages/La-Maison-de-Joséphine/148550388516233

 

References:

1. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGhee

2. Celiac disease: Prevalence, diagnosis, pathogenesis and treatment by Gujral N, Freeman HJ and Thomson ABR in World Journal of Gastroenterology, 14 Nov 2012, 18 (42):6036-6059

 

Related Post:

La Chandeleur: the festival of crêpes

18 thoughts on “Buckwheat: shaping a regional French tradition and helping an allergy

  1. Ravi Sankar

    Bala - Very informative about the galettes. I thought you might also be drawing an analogy of Indian dosa crepes which seem to mostly savory. Wonder why the French restricted themselves to a sweet crepe for the most part.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you.

      You're right, galettes reminded me a lot of South Indian dosai, and I did consider writing about them in this post, but since there seemed to be enough material about galettes themselves to raise questions for discussion, I chose to postpone writing about dosai for later.

      I'm not sure why crêpes are mostly restricted to sweet fillings in France. It was an observation based on menu cards I saw at crêperies that restricted savory fillings to galettes with very few exceptions of crêpes that had savory fillings. It also seemed common for people to order a galette as their main course and finish with a crêpe for dessert. As pure speculation, perhaps the flavor of buckwheat lends itself better to savory fillings while crêpe batter - that often times includes sugar to caramelize - tends to be better suited for sweet fillings. There are of course exceptions.

      Reply
  2. Elisabeth Walker

    Wow! That looks amazing! I can't believe I've been missing a whole category of amazing deliciousness in the world: Galettes! Great post! And in general, great blog idea! Your pictures are just beautiful.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you very much, Lis.

      While writing this post, I thought about the extent to which you embrace and relish talking about whole grains. And, I was especially reminded of all the delicious breads you bake using these grains and various combinations of them.

      Reply
  3. Bala

    Facebook comment from a chef friend:

    "My local creperie serves buckwheat gallettes only and calls them crepes. I do like them with savoury fillings but with the sweet fillings not so much. They are prospering despite my disapproval..."

    Reply
    1. Bala

      The point about how success in sales of a regional speciality dish, and following the tradition of that dish can be dissociated, makes me ask the question: what is the purpose of following tradition in a recipe, as distinct from fusion, and careful experimentation that results in evolution of a dish?

      Reply
  4. Bala

    Google+ comment from a friend who enjoys vegetarian food:

    "My Sister-in-law (a French teacher who lived a year in France) introduced us to galettes a couple of years ago though we didn't have chance to taste the recipe when we visited. Thanks for the info about helping the gluten develop - I might try your variant of the recipe...do you have other suggestions for toppings?"

    Reply
    1. Bala

      I like galettes with just a dab of good salted butter. Also, I think any kind of good mushroom or spinach, with or without some nice cheese, makes for a good topping.

      Reply
  5. Sarah Copeland

    Bala, the whole subject of gluten intolerance is interesting. Recent studies find that when baking bread with wheat flour, if one uses a live yeast culture as opposed to quick yeast then the during the rising process the gluten is eaten by the yeast and the resulting bread is gluten free and tolerated by celiacs. I suppose that since the popularity of using quick yeast in commercial baking has taken over from traditional bakers using traditional methods, we have brought about this situation. If so then the solution is simple. Search out and support traditional bread bakers using live yeast and sourdough cultures and everyone can eat wheat breads. Crepes on the other hand will still be a problem for celiacs....

    Reply
    1. Bala

      That's interesting, Sarah - thank you for sharing. I think what you mention would be, as you say, good from the standpoint of both following traditional methods and finding the reason to do so by careful experimentation.

      In terms of my question, I was actually thinking about "purpose of tradition" as in the purpose of calling "a galette, a galette and not crêpe",and also the purpose of a traditional method of preparation - your example answers the second question, but the first I think has to do with respecting and celebrating the creation and presence of a tradition while also being able to make changes for the better.

      Reply
  6. Reva Pershad

    Dear Bala, thanks for thinking of my gluten problem while writing your blog on crepes & gallettes. I was touched by your thoughtfulness.
    I have always been very fond of crepes, especially crepe suzette with its soft melting in the mouth taste, its inimitable orange peel soaked in Cointreau /Grand Marniere & the visual flourish of flambéed brandy is a totally satisfying ceremonial tradition. All the more reason why I was feeling very deprived of my favourite dessert! Your recipe with Buckwheat is a welcome substitute with no guilt feeling of being tempted to take that 'little bite'. I have never tasted a gallette but can imagine the taste from your lovely shots of the gallette- looks so much like the South Indian rava dosai. (a flat, round gallette made out of fine whole wheat grain)
    Crepes with savoury fillings, I found to be as delicious as tbe sweet ones. I loved the one with mushrooms in a creperie in Melbourne.They were serving many interesting variations
    I have tried a sweet crepe with figs in an orange sauce & Grand Marniere & it was quite a hit
    Thank you Bala for reviving an interest in traditional fare & sharing so much in depth knowledge on the culinary delicacies Also one learns so much from the comments in response to your blog Good show Bala!

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Dear Mrs. Pershad,

      It is a pleasure to think of you when I think of good food.

      The crêpe suzette you mention makes my mouth water - it is one of my favorites, too. Maybe I can share this classic with you someday.

      I agree the galette is very reminiscent of the dosai* and particularly rava dosai* . Thank you for sharing some of your other favorite crêpe combinations - I like mushrooms in particular.

      Thank you especially for your very kind words, and encouragement!

      * For the benefit of some readers, dosai refers to the south Indian style-crêpe, and rava dosai is a version made with rice and wheat flour.

      Reply
  7. Jeff

    I also love the beautiful pictures, as always. The galettes are a beautiful shade of brown, and look so delicate and lacy. And also as always, reading your posts brings happy memories for me. This time, of sitting in a small creperie in London near Royal Albert Hall, before a concert, having a crepe with cider served in heavy ceramic glasses. This was the tradition before going to any concert there 🙂 I never noticed whether they also served galettes, as I never knew the difference until I read your post. Hopefully it is still there and it will be possible to go back someday to check 🙂 One of my favorite breakfast memories was eating at a place in northern California with my sister, aptly called "Stacks;" they served a plate piled with buckwheat pancakes studded with blueberries - the best pancakes I've ever had. I hope to someday try a buckwheat galette! Especially one with topped with mushrooms and cheese, as you suggest. That sounds very good. Thank you for the post, Bala!

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you very much, Jeff!

      I'm so glad to hear that the post invokes happy memories for you. Reading the narration of your memories is a pleasure, as always. Thanks for sharing. The tradition of cider and crêpes in London before a concert sounds lovely not to mention interesting as does the northern California breakfast of "stacks". I haven't tried buckwheat pancakes, but now, will look forward to trying them soon.

      Reply
  8. Andrea Carpenter

    Bala, I enjoyed learning what differentiates a crepe from a gallette. I loved your inclusion of cider in the mix, too. We went to a cider dinner (several courses featuring ham and paired with French and Spanish ciders) at a Chapel Hill restaurant called Kitchen recently. I liked a funky Spanish cider called Isastegi Sagardo a lot. It is from the Basque region. I thought it was a little salty, which I liked a lot.

    Your pictures were great! Now I want to find a restaurant featuring gallettes in this area...

    Andrea

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you, Andrea.

      The sound of a cider dinner sounds lovely! I also think the Basque region is fascinating - I am going to try and find the Isastegi Sagardo. I wonder if a salty cider pairs well with something sweet? Thank you for sharing.

      Bala

      Reply
  9. nirmala

    Thanks for practically putting it on a platter. Very informative and very well illustrated. The pictures bring back memories of Ragi and hand pound red rice dosas and appams popular in southern India.
    Gluten free galettes made of buck wheat will be a big hit among many as I hear more and more people being intolerant to gluten. Thanks for the recipe and for particularly sharing the finer points to be noted while making the batter.
    I can vouch how delicious they taste as I had the pleasure of having it made by the blogger himself during my recent stay with them.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you very much!

      Yes, I agree that buckwheat galettes are reminiscent of ragi* dosai** and red rice dosai.

      We enjoyed sharing these meals with you very much!

      *millet

      **South Indian crêpe

      Reply

I look forward to reading your thoughts...