Matefaim, are what happen when you cross an Italian frittata with a French crêpe. These are delicious eggy pancakes made in various parts of southeastern France as well as some alpine regions of Italy and Switzerland. Seldom found in restaurants, matefaim use a variety of local ingredients including cheese, potatoes, spinach, apples, ham and sausage. The flour is typically wheat but sometimes its buckwheat or even corn (polenta). Matefaim can be either savory or sweet and their name changes depending on where you find them. Towards Lyon, their franco-provençal name is matafan and in Italy’s Trentino, one of the world’s largest apple producing areas, there are apple smacafan for dessert. Here at La Petraia we make our own version of these pancakes and we call them mazzafame. We offer them an amuse with salumi, radish, our fresh pecorino cheese and sour pickled vegetables to go with a glass of our “Chianti Muddle” apperitvo. They never fail to get raves. Their popularity always surprises me because these simple pancakes are so easy to make and their ingredients so elemental. Matafan, or whatever you want to call them, also will stand perfectly well on their own as a light meal along with a simple green salad. Which is how I met them in the first place.
The Haut Jura and Matefaim au Fromage (Cheese)
Several years ago I was surprised to find matefaim au fromage on the menu of a simple roadside bar-resto in the small town of Morez in the Parc naturel régional du Haut-Jura. I’d come to this rather isolated southwestern corner of the Jura near the Swiss border in search of its famous cheese – Blu du Gex, Morbier, Mont d’Or and the all time French favorite, Comté.
This day I happened to pass through Morez around lunchtime on my way to visit the Juraflore Comté aging cellers in nearby Les Rousses and I realized the region was also famous for something else. Eyeglasses! Several lunettes factories lined the streets of Morez and on the main square there stood a modern, architecturally interesting steel and glass structure. The Morez eyeglass museum occupied pride of place opposite the Hotel de Ville along with a wonderful museum shop selling eyeglasses of all kinds.
Obviously there was a vibrant manufacturing industry here and in fact a bit of research revealed the French eyeglass trade was born in Morez in 1796 and it is still the French capital of eyeglass manufacture.
The restaurant in Morez, like much of the town looked as if it had seen better days but the street outside was lined with cars and inside a steamy window I saw a lively, mostly male crowd packed into the small bar/diner. Eyeglass factory employees? Perhaps. Whoever they were I figured they were locals who knew where to eat in this town.
It was past 1:30pm, and in this part of France that’s disrespectfully late for lunch. The rest of Morez was dead to the world and since this looked like my only hope for lunch I decided to stop. I took a deep breath for courage and stepped inside the loud room. My heart sank immediately. There was not a single seat, let alone a free table, in the entire place. Not only that, the noise level had dropped several decibels and all eyes appeared to now be focussed in my direction. I imagined this rather macho crowd was preparing for a spectacle. The one when a very hungry and unaccompanied female étranger gets thrown out on her heels for being late for lunch.
I was preparing for just that episode myself when the kitchen door swung open and a trim, carefully put together and attractive middle-aged woman breezed into the room carrying plates heaped with brown food. Must be the plat du jour I thought to myself. She had a proprietal air about her and, to my relief, she acknowledged my presence with a welcoming smile while she served her customer’s their lunch. Then I was escorted through a door to an elegant and very quiet room adjacent where an altogether different scene was unfolding.
This room was filled with carefully polished reproduction antique furniture, starched white lace curtains hung on the windows and there was linen on the tables. The walls were covered with a fading floral print and adorned with black and white antique photographs (also fading) of Morez. Vases of freshly cut flowers had been placed on every table.
Single male diners, handsome and dressed for business, occupied just two of the other tables. Eyeglass executives? Traveling salesman? I silently congratulated myself for being so brave and for following the crowd. My reward was a delicious plate of cheese matefaim. Up until now I’d just heard rumors of these delicate pancakes, but I’d never expected to find one. Mine arrived with a simple green salad of tender buttery lettuce leaves dressed in a classic French vinaigrette with a hint of Dijon and a cool carafe of the local Arbois white wine. Divine in its simplicity it was a meal fit for a Queen, and just then that is exactly what I felt like.
Recently I found myself passing through Morez again around lunch time and I tried to relocate this restaurant but it appears to have vanished. Or perhaps I only imagined that wonderful meal in the first place. Scroll down for matefan recipes.
Matefaim au Fromage
112 grams (3/4 cup) all purpose flour
225 grams (1 cup) milk
100 grams (3 ounces) grated Comté, gruyere or Beaufort cheese
1 tablespoon melted butter
Salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter for frying
Whisk together the first 5 ingredients. Season the batter with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Heat the butter or oil in a 9 inch crepe pan or skillet and pour the batter into the hot pan while tilting it spreading the batter evenly. Cook over moderate heat until the pancake sets on the bottom and turns golden, about 5 minutes. Flip and cook very briefly on the other side for 2-3 minutes until the bottom is set and turning color. Cut the cake into quarters and serve while still very hot. These delicious pancakes do not age well and should be consumed a la minute!
I make these with the first baby leaves of spinach that come up in my garden in late spring. Since the dish is mostly spinach, it is advisable to seek out the freshest youngest looking leaves. Older spinach often has a tannic undesirable flavor. Unlike the cheese matefaim above, these pancakes are equally good eaten hot or cold and can be made several hours ahead. The recipe is easily doubled for a crowd. Cut into small wedges these make lovely finger food for a party.
350 grams (12 ounces) fresh spinach leaves, stems removed
1 tablespoon flour
½ cup milk
Salt and a pinch of grated fresh nutmeg
2 tablespoons butter
Clean and cook the spinach leaves in abundant boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Drain and squeeze out any excess water. Chop finely. Beat together the eggs, flour, milk and add the spinach. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add the nutmeg. Melt the butter in a large crepe pan and add the mixture. Let it cook for about 10 minutes over moderate heat. Flip the pancake over and cook the other side. Remove to a plate, cut into wedges and serve.