My first meaningful encounter with food took place on the French Riviera in the summer of 1991. I don’t remember it, but the story has been told to me countless times. It happened as I, a toddler with a short temper and a shrill voice, had just convinced my parents to feed me whatever was available in the car we were in; in that case, a piece of a Snickers bar. Moments after I had eaten, my parents heard a cough, then another, then one continuous fit. After a stop at the paediatrician and a terrified rush to the emergency room, I received my first dose of adrenalin. My parents, once careless young adults, returned home that night the carers of a child with a life-threatening peanut allergy. Even now, the mere sight of a Snickers bar scares me a little bit.
From then on, my childhood was peppered with dangerous allergic reactions, robbing me of the sense of safety young children so direly need. Food was both a necessity and a threat, a source of hedonistic pleasure, and cause for extreme anxiety and constant caution. The list of my allergies grew to include all kinds of fruit, soy, spices, and nuts. Danger was everywhere — from food crumbs on an airplane armrest, to Christmas chocolates (Sarments du Médoc, crispy, vine shoot-shaped chocolate sticks, tried once, never again), from communal lunches at my French elementary school, to a fork not washed thoroughly. Life was a series of carefully executed routines aimed at isolating me from 90% of the realm of food. All around me, in commercials, in shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions, I could see other children advancing through life building a world of culinary experiences made of cookies, sweets, yogurts, and cakes whose names I recognised as familiar but would never taste.
The severity of my allergies warranted a strict eviction policy, and I was forbidden from eating food prepared by anyone other than my parents. Still, I would find myself, time and again, hurtling towards the accident and emergency department in my family’s car, the peculiar taste of a vial-full of adrenalin under my tongue, entering my bloodstream through paper-thin veins.
At age 20, noting that my sensitivity had seemed to decrease, I made an appointment with my allergist for a checkup. By then, most food-related conversations would inevitably end with shameful admissions like, “Well, no, I’ve never eaten a pear”, or “Actually, I’ve never tried Chinese cuisine,” followed by quizzical looks of pity and skepticism. Looking up from the results of the skin prick tests, the allergist declared: “I allow you to go out there and experiment a little.” As I walked out of the Institut Pasteur in Paris’s 15th arrondissement, a whole new world opened before my eyes — a world of food.
The first decision I made with my newfound freedom was to commit the ultimate transgression: I would buy a crepe from a street stand — a dark, forbidden place of sliced almonds and walnut spread.
Bretons will tell you that not a single true crepe has ever been observed outside of Brittany — and it is true, as nothing quite compares to the Breton butter, salty and smooth, melting on the brown, raspy surface of an expertly cooked buckwheat crepe — “sarrasin”, in French. The perfect crispiness of the crepe, often wrapped around Emmental, ham (pork being another Breton forte), and an egg; the richness of the flavours, enlivened by the drink served with it — a raw cider always served in the “bolée”, a short sandstone bowl; then, dessert: a lighter, thinner wheat paste (“froment”), which no one outside of Bretagne seems able to cook perfectly.
Partly Bretonne myself, these images of safe, simple and tasty food had been part of my mental landscape since the early days of my childhood, when my parents or grandparents would take me to the (always sunny) shores of southern Finistère for a holiday. There, I wondered at the cold sea, lay in the windswept grass, and spent hours on the beach pretending the boulders around me were furniture and rooms in a large house of my own. Bretagne was a festival of thatched houses against a frame of blue and purple Hortensias; it was storybooks full of legends; it was searching for Korrigans in the woods; catching shrimp with a dip net; and, generally, for a city child like me, it felt like stepping into a world I’d only ever read about in books. Last but not least, Bretagne was the magical, delicious, and blissfully safe crêpes prepared in a crêperie owned by family friends, whose food I had, after careful consideration, been granted permission to try. For days in advance, I would relish trips to this small beacon of Finistère cuisine, the only place where people could be trusted to cook something safe enough for me to eat. Food in the Finistère relied heavily on ingredients I had always known to be safe, reassuring, simple food that was non-allergenic to me: cheese, cereal, eggs, meat. Still, many of the more sophisticated items on the crêperie’s menu remained off limits to me. The one I longed for the most: crêpe au Nutella.
While I was lovingly served a simple, delicious “crêpe au sucre”, a crêpe wrapped around a tablespoon of white sugar, I couldn’t help but gawk at the children one table over, their Nutella-stained spoons excitedly carrying the forbidden substance from plate to mouth and back. While I wasn’t allergic to Nutella’s primary ingredient, hazelnuts, the chocolate-flavoured spread had joined the blacklist by parental decree anyway.
15 years later, the time had finally come. At Odéon, the Left Bank youth’s favourite rendezvous point, under the menacing gaze of a statue of revolutionary Danton, was a small, unassuming crêpe stand, the kind of tiny street vendor shack you can find on so many corners in Paris. I walked up to the stand and tried to place my order as naturally as possible, all the while feeling as though I was doing something forbidden. The vendor and cook expertly poured the batter on a circular hot plate at the centre of the counter. On the left side was an over-sized Nutella jar with its familiar white lid. Steam rose off the plate as the man spread the batter into a perfect circle using a small wooden spatula. The cloudy vapour rising off the hot plate smelled of heated froment. The crepe was expertly flipped, once, twice, and the fated jar opened. The vendor lifted a dollop of Nutella from the jar with a butter knife and spread it on the crepe. He chopped a banana into thick chunks and laid them in an orderly line on a trail of Nutella, wrapping the entire crepe around this mixture, then the crepe inside thin white paper. In exchange for just two coins, he handed me the single recipe I’d most longed for my entire childhood.
The paper burned my fingertips. I could smell, faintly, the bananas through the overwhelming scent of Nutella. Oblivious to everything but the crepe in my hands, I stopped walking. I ignored the tourists, the pigeons, the rush of passers-by, the loud noises of the city. In what I fully recognised as an incongruous age to be fawning over such a simple treat, one that every child in this country had eaten by the dozens before they ever learned their multiplication tables, I, an adult woman with no experience of food, ate the missing piece of my French childhood, the perfect mix of crispy crêpe, the lasting, smooth taste of chocolate with accents of hazelnut, and the heated fruit.
It was exactly as wonderful as I’d imagined it would be.