Buckwheat is a key tenet of Breton gastronomy. Behind this emblematic staple lies a surprising story, as Stephen Turnbull explains…

As most Francophile foodies will know, Brittany is the undisputed home of the galette (or crêpe) de blé noir, a buckwheat pancake that is normally served savoury but which can also be sweet. However, few are aware of the fascinating history behind this traditional dish, the encouraging comeback which farine de blé noir (the flour used to make it) has made recently in the region, or what makes the plant and its faux-céreal seeds so special.

Blé noir-literally ‘black wheat’ – has long been central to Brittany’s culinary identity. It originated from north-eastern Asia and was brought back to Brittany in the Middle Ages by Crusaders, hence its other name of sarrasin, which means Saracen in French. It then began to thrive in the ideal conditions (damp climate/acidic soil) locally, and was soon cultivated on a wide scale. This was partly because farmers refused to pay a tithe on a crop that had become a staple part of the peasant diet, most likely in the form of a greyish gruel or thick griddle cakes.

The story of how this humble but hearty fare turned into elegant, wafer thin crêpes (the generic term for pancakes) topped with meat, cheese, eggs, seafood, vegetables, or a combination thereof, is a little sketchy. According to one legend, a clumsy farmer’s wife spilled some gruel onto a flat stone in the fireplace, whereas another story tells how Anne, Duchess of Brittany (1477-1514), was forced by a violent storm to lodge with peasants for the night and was given a meal more worthy of her status. Whatever the truth, Anne is certainly credited with popularising crêpes/galettes (we will come to the distinction in a moment), and promoting the cultivation of blé noir across the region. Production then peaked in the 19th century, but began to decline during the 1970s in favour of monoculture cereals like wheat, and in the face of competition from China and other leading producers around the world.

But in 1987, a pivotal moment was reached when a group of producers and millers came together to create an association – Blé Noir

Tradition Bretagne – to relaunch Brittany’s buckwheat and protect the flour produced from it with a label. In 2006, the association appointed a new director, Christine Larsonneur, to spearhead its campaign, and in 2010 their collective efforts were rewarded with IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) certification. This guarantees that the product has been grown, stored and milled to the highest standards in Brittany.

Hulled-buckwheat, © Breizh Café

Making a comeback

Following this development, and the growing popularity with tourists and locals alike of crêperies, regional production of blé noir has begun to make a comeback. More recently, this has been given further impetus by a number of food entrepreneurs keen to push the boundaries of its culinary potential. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Breizh Café (Breizh is Breton for Brittany) in Saint-Malo, Finistère, where you can choose from a fusion-style, Breton-Japanese menu created by dynamic 50-something restaurateur Bertrand Larcher. The remarkable versatility of blé noir is further explored at Maison du Sarrasin, the sister shop next door to the restaurant, where you can buy biscuits, honey, and even pasta made from it. There is no arguing with the commercial success of Bertrand’s chain, which includes several restaurants in Paris, many more in Japan, and a partnership with the nearby L’Atelier de la Crêpe, an international cooking school in Saint-Malo which offers courses in crêpe/ galette-making for both food professionals and amateurs using the traditional bilig (rounded griddle) and roselle (wooden spatula).

Bertrand-Larcher-gathering-buckwheat-at-the-Ferme-Breizh-Café-Saint-Coulomb, © Philippe-Erard

It also uses copious amounts of butter to achieve that authentically crispy texture and enhance blé noir’s characteristically nutty aftertaste. But if you don’t want to sound like an amateur, make sure you’ve grasped the basic distinction between (sweet/sucré) crêpes and (savoury/salé) galettes. Note also that wheat flour (froment) and egg is often added to crêpes de blé noir/sarrasin in Lower Brittany for a lighter texture and richer taste, while galettes from the North are usually made from the simpler, and more traditional, recipe of flour, water, and a pinch of salt.

Fabulous-foodstuffs-at-the-Épicerie-Maison-du-Sarrasin-in-Saint-Malo, © Romain-Buisson.

Crêpes and galettes may be more comfort food than health food but, as eco-conscious

Bertrand (he cultivates the crop too) is keen to point out, blé noir itself is a highly nutritious and sustainable product. It is not only rich in plant protein, fibre, amino acids, antioxidants and B vitamins, which is why many consider it to be a ‘superfood, but it is also gluten-free. Furthermore, it is remarkably resilient, which means it doesn’t need to be treated with pesticides. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a cereal, but belongs to the same family (Polygonaceae) as rhubarb and sorrel.

In contrast to its tiny white flowers, though, the Breton variety has dark-coloured seeds, hence ‘black gold’. Brittany still imports most (around 70%) of its buckwheat and that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. But there is no doubt that blé noir rernains as emblematic of the region as its black and white flag. Long may that continue.

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