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How-To

From the French Alps, A Versatile Crêpe

Fine Cooking Issue 55
Photo: Scott Phillips
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I think the Savoie is one of the most beautiful provinces of France. Located on the western slopes of the Alps, the region remains unexplored—and its cuisine undiscovered—by many American travelers. I first fell in love with this area and its hearty mountain food during my childhood summers spent at summer camp. Years later, I returned to the Savoie as a cooking teacher. Among the local ingredients found in the region’s rich, slow-cooked dishes are delicious cheeses and fresh cream, some of the best bacon in the world, wild mushrooms, superb potatoes and root vegetables, walnuts and chestnuts, prune plums, and pears.  

The most traditional food of the Savoie is probably the matafan . Its name means “kills the hunger,” which was apt. For centuries, the matafan (pronounced mah-tah-FOHN) was serious lunch food for field workers. It was a thick cake with a very crisp crust, usually eaten with chunks of Reblochon or slices of Beaufort cheese. It has evolved into a much thinner, lighter, and vastly more appealing snack—quite reminiscent of Brittany crêpes but, in my opinion, far more interesting and versatile. Modern matafans will definitely satisfy your hunger, but they won’t kill it.  

At summer camp, we were often served high stacks of matafans for dinner, which I loved. Once I had children of my own, I introduced them to this tradition, though I had by then modified the recipe even further by folding whipped egg whites into the batter, lightening the cakes and giving them a more delicate texture. I was pleased to see my young sons devour them with the same enthusiasm that I had as a child.  

Matafans are best cooked in a nonstick 8-inch frying pan, called a pêlo in the local dialect. The original cooking fats were butter, lard, walnut oil, or even hemp oil (which would turn the matafans green), but nowadays, butter is the usual choice.  

It’s easy to vary the flavor and texture of the basic matafan recipe by replacing some of the all-purpose flour with dark buckwheat flour, pumpkin purée, mashed potatoes, fine cornmeal, or corn flour. The amount of all-purpose flour should always be greater than that of the other starches. Cooked greens such as chard or spinach, mushrooms, or dried fruit like prunes can be added to the batter as well. Toppings can be as simple as fresh herbs or an onion compote or fried eggs with crumbled bacon. You can even make a dessert matafan by garnishing it with honey mixed with softened butter.  

The more hearty variations with potato and different flours are sustaining enough to be nourishing snacks following a hike in the woods. The simple version I’m giving you here would be perfect for brunch or even a simple supper. To fill out the meal, I might serve the matafans with fresh fruit or a green salad dressed with my favorite oil and vinegar.

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