What is a crepe? The history of crepes begins with the pancake, which first appeared as a flat, unleavened bread as early as prehistoric times.
Anthropologists believe that the round shape was no accident. The circular pancake may have been in reverence to the sun, which was worshipped by ancient civilizations. Starting in the 15th century, the pancake began popping up in Europe, where it assumed many different names and traditions.
The Dutch call it pannekoeken, the Germans pfankuchen, and the Swedish pannkakor. In looking at these names, you can easily see the origins of the English word pancake. Today, variations of pancakes exist in nearly all cultures, from dosas in India to blinis in Russia and tortillas in Mexico. We first saw them in America as "griddlecakes" or "johnnycakes," which had been introduced to early settlers by the Native Americans.
In France the pancake is known as a crêpe, spelled with a character known as the circumflex or ˆ over the first "e." The word comes from the Latin term crispus, which explains the flat, almost crisp texture. The crepe actually originated in Brittany, in the northwest corner of France, where they still make sweet crepes or galettes, which are filled with meats and cheeses. In medieval times, peasants presented crepes to their feudal lords as a demonstration of loyalty. In the Breton town of Quimper they actually have a museum celebrating the history of crepes. It's located (where else?) in Place au Beurre or Butter Square!
The crepe was brought to America in the 1930s by French Chef Henri Charpentier. He claimed to have been the one to create and serve the original Crepes Suzette to the future King Edward VII in Monte Carlo. While this point has been disputed, there is no denying that this classic dish and its delicious orange sauce soon became the staple feature of haute cuisine in America.
Today in France crepes are served everywhere, on the streets, in restaurants and bistros, as well as the home. Families make them to celebrate holidays such as Candlemas or the Tuesday before Lent. The French also celebrate the crepe on February 2 as a National Holiday. There the home cooks are known to touch the handle of the pan and make a wish as the crepe is being flipped! This charming tradition is reported to bring good luck to the crepemaker. And in my mind, it must work, because what better luck can you have than sitting down to eat a crepe?
Enjoy history? Want to learn more about one of our favorite crepe ingredients? Read the History of Chocolate.