French bakers can be an irascible bunch. If you need proof, just ask one where her croissants come from. Such was my mistake when I pressed the owner of a busy Paris boulangerie—in terrible French—about whether her croissants were made on-site. Flustered, she raised a small plaque from the counter that explained all baked goods were whipped up in this little shop, and waved it in front of my face. “Comprenez?” she fumed.
Embarrassment aside, my diligence was justified. The iconic French croissant is under attack as many pedlars of baked goods have forgone the kneading and rolling of croissant dough for factory frozen varieties. These so-called industrial croissants have become so common the National Confederation of French Boulangeries and Patisseries—which represents France’s 37,000 bakeries—is grappling with how to define “homemade” viennoiserie, a category of baked goods that includes croissants, brioche and other sweets. (They’ll meet to discuss the issue in December.)
Certifying the authenticity of regional specialties has become an obsession in the Old World. In Italy, the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana upholds the integrity of true Neapolitan pizza. And France already has a similar law for bread: any establishment calling itself a boulangerie must conduct the entire bread-making process on-site, with no frozen dough. Some boulangers argue a similar rule should apply to croissants. Purists contend house-made products simply taste better; many merchants prefer the time and money saved by industrial croissants. Rémi Héluin, a Parisian who blogs about the bakery scene at Painrisien.com, offers another reason: “The customers do not really know the difference.”
After wolfing down nearly 20 different croissants during a recent trip, I can say that Héluin is partly right. There is a wide swath of tasty but otherwise unremarkable croissants in the city, and getting someone to actually admit to serving industrial croissants is difficult. (I’m convinced at least two shifty-eyed boulangers were lying to me.) I found one at a café in the city’s fourth arrondissement. The guy behind the counter, perhaps expecting I might walk away, pleaded, “Try it. It’s very good.” It wasn’t awful: warm, faintly buttery, and a far cry from Pillsbury. Then I had one at Poilâne, a traditional bakery that’s been a Parisian institution since 1932. It was just moist enough to bleed through its wrapping, crispy without excessive shedding, and surprisingly layered in taste. The best part was the burst of butter that hit a few seconds after each bite, as though it were packed with timed-release butter bombs. If the frozen pastry makers figure that trick out, the housemade croissant really is in trouble.
Joe Castaldo is senior writer and international boulangerie reporter at Canadian Business