Pancake Day is an underrated celebration. When else do you have an excuse for spending an inordinate amount of time mixing lumpy batter, so that you’re 45 minutes late to work with no better excuse than “I wanted cake for breakfast”? There really nothing better than a day on which you are destined to accidentally flip a crepe to the top of the kitchen cupboard, leave it there for nine months, and have your housemate shout at you because it is now hosting a small family of mice. What fun!
Making yourself sick on Sainsbury’s pancake batter mix 26 years in a row can get a bit dull, which is why I’ve headed to Central London to try mille crepes, a French-inspired Japanese patisserie. If you’ve never heard the dessert, imagine a thin crepe—like the ones your dad would always insist on making on a Sunday morning even though he literally couldn’t cook anything else. Now take that thin, beautiful pancake, and picture it covered in patisserie cream in different flavours—coconut, matcha, chocolate—and layered it into a thick creamy, pancakey stack. The finished cake is dusted with cocoa or matcha powder, or left plain, and cut into slices to serve.
This is explained to me by Jon Cai, co-owner of Kova Patisserie, a small, minimalist designed bakery situated down a hidden side-street in London’s Soho. It’s easy to miss, but the shop, which sells a variety of Japanese patisseries, from cheesecake to strawberry shortcake, is clearly popular. Arriving on a busy Friday afternoon, I stare, captivated, at the glass case of desserts.
“Which one do you want to try first?” Cai asks me, correctly identifying my overwhelming desire to stuff my face with creamy patisseries. I ask for the green matcha mille crepes.
"Matcha is quite strong,” he warns me. “For Westerners, I usually recommend starting with chocolate. There's a huge trend of matcha, and most people don't understand it. It's different from their expectation of what they try in Starbucks.”
I go against his advice, but just in case, he also brings me out a chocolate slice (my job is hard). Ready to begin eating two desserts simultaneously, I ask Cai how Kova came about.
“My business partner Ben and I are both foodies, and we wanted to have good quality Japanese-French patisseries in London but couldn't find any, so decide to open [a shop],” explains Cai. “So, we opened in November 2016, and it's been amazing. We have customers coming in every single day.”
This makes sense to me, considering the mille crepes are stupidly tasty. The matcha slice is delicious and slightly bitter, and the chocolate one is equally complex. My fork cuts through the layers with little resistance, so it’s like biting into a fluffy, cream-filled pillow (but not weird).
Barely able to hear Cai over the customers chatting, I ask him why he thinks the cake is so popular. “Our products are very authentic to East Asia,” he says, “so the East Asians in London really love them.”
But how do they compare to what they could get at home?
“To be honest, [they’re] better than most of the products you can find in Japan,” Cai tells me, explaining that it’s in the diversity of the ingredients available. “For the Japanese part, we import the highest quality ingredients—like tea—from Japan whereas for French patisserie, the most important parts are the flour and dairy products, and Europe produces the best. That's why in the end you come out with amazing results, because in Japan you wouldn't be able to get those European dairy products.”
Safe to say, mille crepes are a lot tastier than a soggy lemon and sugar pancake but, crucially, far harder to make.
"It's a very time-consuming product,” says Cai. “You have pan-fry the pancakes, layer them up layer by layer, and do it perfectly because you can't make a mistake in one layer or it will jump out when you taste the cake.”
To prove his point, Cai takes me to the back of the shop where Ben Zhang, his business partner, is ready to take me through the steps of to make a matcha mille crepes. With the speed of a professional, he places a pancake on a rotatable stand and applies patisserie cream over the top in a gentle, circular motion. He then repeats with eight crepes until the cake is a few inches high. Finally, the whole cake is dusted with matcha and checked over for cream that may have fallen indecently out of its sides.
I’m inspired and wonder if I, an amateur, could have a go at making my own mille crepes. Optimistically, I ask how long it would take. As Cai calculates, I start to picture my Shrove Tuesday morning, no longer mushing the last scrapings of dried-out Nutella onto a rubbery pancake, but lovingly presenting my flatmate, boyfriend, and colleagues with a slice of mille crepes, gaining admiration and adoration throughout the day.
“To be honest, when you have no experience, and no proper production, it would take you more than six hours,” says Cai.
“Oh,” I say.
“At least,” he adds.
Maybe not then.