Pancake Day in Hackney: no batter is better

Sugar and lemon crêpe at Le Merlin. Pic: Le Merlin

Tomorrow is Pancake Day, and who better to ask how to make the perfect pancake than Antoine Minvielle, owner of the Hackney-based crêperie Le Merlin. But what seemed like a straightforward question is, he says, almost impossible to answer. “In Brittany,” he explains, “there are as many recipes for crêpes as there are churches.” Arguably the most iconic Breton dishes – the crêpe and galette – are a staple in the diet for many from that region. The latter is usually savoury, whereas the crêpe is enjoyed sweet. Adapted widely across Brittany, the recipes are endless with hundreds of variations.

Minvielle, who was born in Marseille and lived there for 10 years before moving to London, learned to perfect the art of making the crêpe when he trained in Brittany. “It is a precise concept. There are lots of different ways to make them,” he says. “But simplicity is best.”  He believes in the traditional method, like the three-ingredient recipe for the galette; the batter of which is made with buckwheat flour, water, and salt. He stresses a number of times: “You don’t need too many things, don’t overcomplicate it, there’s no need.”

What many don’t realise, Minvielle says, is that the batter must not be mixed using any form of equipment: “You use your hands to get the right amount of air. Using a whisk adds too much air and if you don’t mix it enough, you don’t get enough air.”

Antoine Minvielle Pic: Le Merlin

The batter is then left to rest for a minimum of 24 hours. After a process of trial and error for the perfect recipe, Minvielle says at Le Merlin, they “normally leave it for around three days; we found this works best, it gives the best colour and really brings out the taste of the buckwheat.” For the sweet equivalent, the crêpe, the ingredients are regular wheat flour, eggs, milk and sugar. At Le Merlin, this is left to rest for 24 hours. Minvielle stops himself before he says anymore about what goes into this batter: “It’s a secret. There may be some other ingredients but I can’t tell you those.” He recalls that, even as a child, “if we wanted crêpes for dinner we would make the batter earlier that day. This is key.”

The crêpe and galette were a firm favourite for Minvielle and his twin brother growing up. “If my mother asked us what we wanted to eat for dinner, crêpe would always be the answer. We would see how many we could eat; we would have up to 10 or 11 each. Even now, there is always batter in the fridge to make one for breakfast.”

Salted butter caramel, chocolate sauce, and grilled almonds crêpe. Pic: Le Merlin

Having lived in Hackney for six years, Minvielle chose this as the home for his crêperie as he felt comfortable in the area. “We opened this with not much money, but I had a lot of support.” Speaking of his love for the area, he says: “What we do at Le Merlin and the way we do it fits this area. People are open to new things here.”

Le Merlin employs two crêpiers, both from Brittany. When asked why it was so important to employ chefs from the food’s native home, Minvielle says quite simply: “It is natural to them.” Although still young, the restaurant boasts a strong reputation amongst fans of the pancake. “People really appreciate what we do here,” says Minvielle. “They say, ‘We can’t find crêperies like this in Brittany’.”

So what is it that sets Le Merlin apart from other crêperies? Minvielle believes it is in the produce: “If the products are good, the plate is good. This is very important to me. I think the reason people enjoy our crêpes so much is our ingredients.”

The crêperie prides itself on sourcing authentic ingredients for its toppings, such as the sausage from Toulouse, the cheese from Savoie and butter from Normandy: “When people come here, and they see those ingredients on our menu, they are happy.”

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