Bread of Brittany


In a windswept kingdom in northwestern France, a farmer’s wife hovers over her hearth. She checks the flat, round stone heating in the wood fire, gauging when it will be hot enough to cook the flat bread, or galette, whose name is derived from galet, the French word for “pebble.” Mixing a batter of water, egg, sea salt and the flour from the buckwheat her husband has grown and harvested in Brittany’s thin soil, she carefully pours a ladleful onto the middle of the hot stone. The woman quickly spreads it into a thin circle with a wooden spatula, then waits for the edges to curl, the signal that it is perfectly cooked.

As her young daughter watches and learns, the woman repeats the process, making a stack of the pancakes for the week, therefore preserving the family’s wood supply. Most often eaten plain, or sometimes filled with ham, cheese or an egg, the galettes serve as the region’s daily bread, much like the tortillas of Mexico, the blinis of Russia or the injera of Ethiopia.

Fast-forward 500 years to the sunny skies and golden hills surrounding the Marin Civic Center. A group of women hover in front of Brittany Crepes and Galettes, a canvas kiosk tucked between pizza and kettle corn stands at the twice-weekly farmers market. Stylishly coiffed ladies in wedge sandals and perfect pedicures mingle with hippie moms, their babies in pouches, all waiting expectantly to taste a delicious crêpe or galette cooked by proprietor and master chef Laurent Le Barbier, a native of Brittany.

As the line grows, Le Barbier and his two assistants work nonstop over the four propane gas heated crêpe makers, called a bilig in Celtic, the ancestral language of Brittany. When the bilig is heated to a blistering 220 degrees Celsius (425 degrees Fahrenheit), the chef measures out precisely six ounces of batter and ladles it onto the center.

With the grace attained from much practice, Le Barbier spreads the batter in a fluid, circular motion, ensuring a uniform thinness. If the batter is spread too slowly, parts of the pancake will be thicker than others and will heat at different rates, overcooking or undercooking spots.

The T-shaped spreader, or roselle, is traditionally made of rosewood, a tough material that isn’t easily damaged or misshapen by heat and water. When the edges of the galette curl (the word “crêpe” is derived from the Latin “crispa,” meaning “curled”), Le Barbier expertly loosens and then flips it with a large spatula to heat the other side for a few seconds. Flipping it back to its original position, he adds the filling, folds it up and slips it onto a plate for the hungry customer. “I come here frequently, and get the breakfast galette every time,” says patron Rich Rusdorf. “I wish Laurent had a regular place in San Rafael that was open so I could eat there every day.”

Le Barbier grew up watching his grandmother make galettes on her well-worn cast-iron pan, and as a child ate them for breakfast, dinner or an after-school snack. His mother made crêpes on Fridays, when Catholics often refrain from eating meat.

Many Americans are unaware of the distinction between crêpes and galettes, and Le Barbier rapidly explains the differences in his heavily accented English. Galettes are made with buckwheat flour and are usually served with a savory filling, like eggs or cheese. Crêpes are made with all-purpose white flour and usually have a sweet filling like fresh fruit, jam, or powdered sugar and butter and are served for breakfast or dessert.

Sometimes people add a flavor to the crêpe batter, like a little espresso or vanilla. There is even a distinction made between the two by how they are folded: galettes into rectangles, crêpes into triangles. Le Barbier explains that this is “restaurant style,” to be eaten from a plate, but that as Parisian street food, both crêpes and galettes are folded into paper cones for easy take away. Le Barbier is in the process of finding a supplier for cones so he can eliminate paper plates and plastic forks and serve a more environmentally friendly product.

The westernization of crêpes is usually credited to Henri Charpentier, a world-renowned chef who served French royalty in the late 1800s. He reputedly created crêpes Suzette, a dessert crêpe flavored with orange and flambéed with brandy, and later immortalized in The Patty Duke Show theme song. Charpentier parleyed his fame into restaurants in New York and Redondo Beach, Calif., where Americans tasted his “exotic” fare, and crêpes began to gain recognition throughout the United States.

Fillings for the pancakes now extend far beyond the traditional “galette complete,” made with ham, Gruyère cheese and an egg sunny-side up, to ones made with a variety of ingredients like bacon and sour cream or pesto or bananas, Nutella and chocolate. At Brittany Crepes and Galette, most ingredients are bought or traded from local farmers. Customers have the choice of combining gourmet cheeses, pesto, fresh tomatoes, mushrooms, green onions, eggs and, for the meat eaters, ham, bacon, chicken breast or smoked salmon. The savory crêpes are made with organic buckwheat flour and are gluten-free.

Le Barbier will not divulge the family secret of making the perfect crêpe. “I grew up with it,” he shrugs, “and the secret is a lot of little things put together—the recipe, how we flip them, the seasoning of the pan. My mother used to make a game of flipping the crêpe—how high could we flip it from the pan.”

The line outside the kiosk never seems to shorten, even though Le Barbier and his helpers are working at full-speed. The market closing time nears. “Spin, spin, spin!” he urges his protégés. “Go faster, faster, faster! Don’t be afraid to spread it!” Then he takes over the job himself. The replaced helper works in the back, prepping more onions and mushrooms for the hungry crowd. The next customer at the window is greeted with a “Bonjour!” and a smile from the master himself.

Brittany Crepes and Galettes, Civic Center Farmers Market, San Rafael. Thursday and Sunday, 8am-1pm. Petaluma Farmers Market, June through August at Walnut Park, D Street at Petaluma Boulevard South. Wednesday, 4&–8pm. 415.640.3613.