Next week will be the week of Carnival (or the Crepe week) which happens every year before the liturgical season of Lent. Carnival, also known as Mardi Gras (in English, Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday) falls on the Tuesday, February 28th, before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent. The word shrove means “to absolve oneself from sin”, and in ancient times people absolved themselves of their sins by confessing them to a priest, who was also known as a shriver (absolver of sins).
Carnival and its famous night of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) has been celebrated here since the 1200s. But Mardi Gras’ roots predate the French. Many see a relationship to the ancient tribal rituals of fertility that welcomed the arrival of Spring. A possible ancestor of the celebration was the Lupercalia, a circus-like orgy held in mid-February in Rome. The early Church fathers, realizing that it was impossible to divorce their new converts from their pagan customs, decided instead to direct them into Christian channels. Thus Carnival was created as a period of merriment that would serve as a prelude to the penitential season of Lent.
In ancient times people dressed themselves in old clothes and indulged in mock fights using rotten eggs, chickpeas, lemons, and oranges. Revellers threw dummies stuffed with straw and rags on unsuspecting passers-by. At the end of Carnival the dummies were burned, and people would sing and dance in merriment to the sound of carnival music.
In Monaco on this day there is an elaborate Carnival. Monacans clad in colourful attire and wearing masks parade through the streets of the principality. Musical bands play music nonstop, and singing, dancing, and feasting takes place throughout Shrove Tuesday.
Where to go to taste some crepes (pancakes) in the honour of the Fat Tuesday?
Appointed at the Café de Paris six months ago, Chef Franck Lafon became a specialist of the crêpe Suzette, a true institution of the Monegasque establishment.
Franck Lafon doesn’t recall precisely the day when he began to take an interest in cooking.
“I come from a family where the kitchen has always been very present. My mother and my grandmother kind of passed the torch on to me.”
At the age of twelve he trained in Menton with Jean Montagnard. Then, at the age of seventeen, he graduated to the Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo as a third clerk. Then everything continued from there, he spent thirty-four years in the establishment and eventually crossed the Place du Casino and returned to the Café de Paris last September.
“It is a real challenge to take the reins of this establishment. It requires a lot of work, but also a lot of talking. I trust my team.”
A typical style of cuisine
Franck Lafon calls himself a ‘generalist’ chef, “but in the good sense of the word”, he said. The restaurant offers many known and recognised specialties.
“I cook everything, but mostly typical, traditional dishes. In fact, I want people at the Café de Paris to feel as if they were at home on Sunday. A relaxed place to gather and see family.”
And the crêpe Suzette symbolises this.
“People often come here to taste the famous crêpe Suzette, the tradition persists”, explained the chef.
Six months of the year, nearly eighty crêpes Suzette are sold per day, more than a hundred on good days. With six hundred covers a day, the crêpe Suzette occupies an important place in the menu of the establishment. An additional challenge for the Niçois chef.
“This is one of the most famous places in Monaco and one of the most important cafés in France, so the clients are quite demanding.”
The pancakes are prepared in the room, from scratch, to the delight of the customers.
“They like to watch the preparation of the crêpe, especially the moment of the flambé.”
Once again, Franck Lafon wants to make the Café de Paris a place that brings people together.
“I am a leader but one who likes to share. My goal is to break with the mythology, to bring back this family side to cooking.”
The crêpe Suzette and the Café de Paris
The crêpe Suzette is at the heart of several legends, including that of the Café de Paris. According to Franck Lafon, it was born from the mistake of young pastry chef Henri Carpentier. In 1896, the Café de Paris was receiving the Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII. The latter had asked the pastry chef for a crêpe for dessert. While preparing it, the chef accidentally spilled alcohol on the hot crêpe, causing it to flame. Carpentier did not have time to make a new one, so he served the flaming crêpe to the Prince, who adored it. Curious, the latter asked to know the name of this mysterious recipe. Embarrassed, the confectioner pretended that he had invented it for the Prince and that his name would be given to the dish. But out of gallantry, the Prince preferred that it be given the name of the young woman who accompanied him at the table. Of course, this young woman was called Suzette.
The famous crêpe Suzette
Others attribute the origin of the crêpe Suzette to one of the fathers of French gastronomy: Auguste Escoffier, to whom Henri Carpentier was a clerk and a disciple. This hypothesis seems the most probable because the recipe was included in his culinary guide published in 1903. No matter the dish’s true origin, the only thing that hasn’t changed is its delicious taste.
And Chef Franck Lafon continues this wonderful tradition in keeping the legend of the crêpe Suzette alive for future diners!
Recipe: For a successful crêpe Suzette
Prepare several small crêpes with a classic crêpes batter (flour, milk, eggs, sugar). Then make a dry caramel. To do this, pour sugar into a heated pan, and let it lightly caramelize without water. Then add a small amount of butter and mix. Once sugar and butter are well incorporated, deglaze with orange juice and allow it to reduce. Then flambé it with Grand Marnier. Finally, roll the crêpes in the frying pan so that they will absorb the syrup. And here, your crêpes are ready for tasting!