Crespelle alla Fiorentina: Catherine de' Medici & the great crêpes debate

The origins of foods and recipes are often the subject of heated nationalistic argument. I won't go as far as to say that wars have been fought over who has the right to call puff pastry their own, but who knows? Swarthy men with fiery tempers working long hours on their feet over smoking pots, knives in hand—the concept probably isn't too farfetched.

Sometimes benign and good-natured, sometimes bloody and fomented, the rivalry between Italy and France has been there for centuries. So when an alliance between the two was born by way of the marriage of Florentine lass Caterina de' Medici and teenage King Henry II of France in 1533, it proved a fertile field for cross-cultural pollination.

Compared to Medici-bankrolled Florence, 16th century France was practically a backwater. Or so it seemed to young Catherine who possessed a sophisticated palate and—eyeing the natives' trencher-and-shank cookery askance—brought her own culinary posse to the French court. This included several pastry chefs, a gelato-maestro, three cooks from the Tuscany's Mugello region, among others. She brought the fork with her, too, no doubt having been scandalized by the French mode of hacking at victuals with knives or tearing at them with hands and incisors.

One of the delicacies she introduced to the French was the Tuscan salsa colla or colletta (colla = "glue"), which was a sauce of milk tinged with meat broth and spices and used to bind flavors together in various dishes. This sauce essentially became the Frenchified velouté and later dropped its carnivorous guise altogether, becoming the creamy white marvel of chemistry that was re-christened béchamel in honor of one Marquis Louis de Béchameil (by all appearances a useless fop who didn't know a ladle from a riding crop or a scullery from a hole in the ground). By the strange, circuitous routes of history, this delicate, delightful sauce has long since made its way back to the Bel Paese—sporting a French accent, as it were—and is there called besciamella. It's the glorious glue that snakes between layers of lasagne in Emilia-Romagna, and locks spinach-and-ricotta-filled crêpes in a lover's embrace in Florence's own crespelle alla fiorentina.

And speaking of crêpes, it seems Catherine brought those to the great Gallic palooza, too. French or Italian, the word's origins come from the Latin crispus, meaning rolled or curled, and from the more modern Italian crespo ("kinked, creased"; a word with which I was unfortunately made all too familiar by my Florentine hairdresser). Now I know you're probably thinking that crêpes are as French as Louis Malle and a bright blue pack of Gauloises, but ask any Italian and he'll tell you evenly and with no trace of rancor whatsoever that the French are full of sh** and crespelle belong to the Boot. In the 5th century, long before Catherine threw off her stays in the Louvre and contemplated her new home, legend has it that an alarmed Pope Gelasius—seeing the thronged French pilgrims newly-arrived in Rome, hungry for both bread and redemption—had cartloads of flour and eggs brought in and voilà! A future vehicle for Nutella was born.

But regardless of which flag you care to fly over this piece of culinary terroir, we can probably all agree that a crêpe—whoops, strike that—crespella by any other name would taste as sweet.

You'll find crespelle alla fiorentina as a frequent special at Burrasca during the winter months; it's warming and comforting and absolutely delicious.

—Elizabeth Petrosian