Pain perdu

It was a sunny day. Catarina was going to the French language centre, where she was doing her summer French course. It was a good opportunity to develop her speaking skills, meet new people and discover a French city. She was in Toulouse. In Porto, her hometown, she had already started studying French in an academy but wanted to practice with native people.

She arrived and waved at Fatma, the Turkish girl she had met the first day. They got along very well because they had many things in common. They liked the same types of novels and music and were very interested in museums. They had already visited the Museum of Fine Arts.

The rest of the students arrived. They all came from different countries – Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Türkiye – and they were all aged between 15-18. Their cultures were different, but they had a good relationship and loved sharing time together.

The teacher arrived and said, “Hello, how are you? I hope that your weekend was good. This week we will start speaking about food. I’m sure you are curious to know about some of the French specialities. Are there any that you already know?” Alessandro, the Italian, quickly raised his hand and answered, “Of course, croissants!”. Yannis, the Greek, added, “I know ratatouille!”. The rest of the students mentioned more dishes and foods – Crêpes, onion soup, tarte tatin, quiche Lorraine – and spoke about their favourite ones.

The teacher said, “Good, good, I see that you know some typical dishes and pastries. Today we will speak about a type of pastry called ‘pain perdu’, which literally means ‘lost bread’”. “‘Lost bread’, that is weird”, said Catarina. “Well, you will see. We are going to watch a video that explains the origins of this pastry and how it is prepared. It is typical in France. In some places, it is known as French bread”.

The video started playing, and a voiceover began explaining, “The history of ‘pain perdu’ or ‘French bread’ dates back from the Roman Empire. In the book De re coquinaria, this pastry is mentioned. The recipe is very similar to what it is now, bread soaked in milk and beaten eggs and then fried with olive oil. Then they added some honey to make it sweet. There are other documents from the Middle Ages that mention salty recipes. The final version of ‘pain perdu’ as we know it today –  fried with butter and sugar on top – is more recent. Experts indicate that it became popular in the 17th century”.

In the video, there were many images showing the cooking process, and all the students were paying attention while their stomachs were making noises because they were hungry. The voiceover continued, “Nowadays, it is a very typical dessert in every corner of France. It is simple but delicious”. When the video ended, the teacher said, “Well, are you hungry now? Did you like the video? It is perfect to practice your listening skills and to learn about something typical at the same time. Next class, we will cook them together so you can taste them”.

Fatma raised her hand and said, “I have already tasted pain perdu. In Türkiye, it is called ‘yumurtalı ekmek’, which means ‘eggy bread’. However, it is salty as we fry it and add salt and spicy spices’. We usually have it for breakfast. It’s delicious. “Really? I didn’t know that existed in Türkiye and I hadn’t heard before about pain perdu. In Spain, we call it ‘torrijas’. They are a typical Easter pastry. We soak the bread in milk with cinnamon. Then we put them inside the beaten eggs, and we fry them and add sugar. I thought they were typical from my country”.

Catarina added, “Your description of ‘torrijas’ sounds very similar to Portuguese ‘rabanadas’. The recipe is the same, but we don’t add cinnamon. The most important thing is to choose bread that is hard, so we don’t waste it.” Céline, the Belgian girl, added, “In Belgium, we also call it pain perdu and the recipe is similar to the French one. It’s delicious! I would love to try the Turkish, Spanish and Portuguese versions”. Mihail, the Bulgarian student, said, “I have never tried any of them and I would love to. I’m hungry now!”

The teacher, who had been listening to all of them, said, “Well, what an interesting lesson. We have all learned something new today. As you can see, there are many dishes that are very similar among countries. Every place adds something which makes it special. I propose to you something, for next week you can prepare a presentation about a typical dish from your country. Who knows, maybe we will discover that there are other similar meals in our countries”.

They spent the rest of the class speaking about food and sharing experiences from their countries. After the class, Catarina and Fatma walked back home. “Do you know what dish you are going to present next week?” asked Catarina. Fatma answered, “I don’t know, I have many ideas. There are many delicious Turkish dishes that I would love to speak about! And you?” “I don’t know either. In Portugal, we also have a lot of nice food and I want to find something very special”, said Catarina. “Well, we’ve got time to think. I’m very hungry. Do you want to eat a crêpe?” asked Fatma. “Yes, let’s go!” answered Catarina.

Both friends spent the afternoon visiting the city and sharing their experiences. They were very happy because they had different backgrounds and they could learn a lot from each other. They knew that the French course was going to be a fantastic experience that they would never forget.

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EXTRA INFORMATION ON THE TOPIC:

The first mention of ‘pain perdu’ can be found in the food book De re coquinaria by Marcus Gavius Aspicius in the 4th century and it includes the recipe of what he calls “Aliter Dulcia”. It consisted of bread soaked in milk and beaten eggs in milk and then fried with olive oil and finished with some honey to sweeten it. There are other documents from the Middle Ages that describe recipes with salt and other spices. 

One of the main objectives of this dessert was to avoid bread waste. Also, given its composition, it has a high calorific value which makes it very satisfying. In some countries, such as Spain and Portugal, its consumption is linked to Lent and Easter. Forty days before Easter, people had to fast and weren’t allowed to eat many foods, such as meat. However, the basic ingredients of pain perdu – milk, eggs and bread – were allowed.

Pain perdu is nowadays popular in many European countries and beyond: Canada (pain doré), the Netherlands (gewonnen brood), United Kingdom (poor knights of Windsor), Germany (Arme Ritter), Switzerland (fotzelschnitten), Russia (Grenki), Austria (pofesen), Hungary (bundás kenyér), Spain, Argentina and Uruguay (torrijas), Belgium and France (pain perdu), Portugal (Rabanadas), Greece (αυγόφετα), United States (French toast) and Turkey (yumurtalı ekmek).

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