Everyone knows the croissant story, don’t they? Viennese bakers, under siege by the Ottomans in 1683, are slaving over their ovens in the small hours when they hear scrapings and rumblings underground. They raise the alarm, the guards apprehend a gang of stealthily tunnelling Turks, and the bakers are rewarded with the right to bake pastries in the shape of Islam’s crescent moon flag. And if it wasn’t the Viennese bakers in 1683, it was the Hungarian bakers of Budapest when their city was besieged by Muslim armies three years later. And if it wasn’t them it was some other plucky gang of Christian bakers, dedicatedly turning out patriotic pastries and victory viennoiseries. And if it wasn’t them…
And here the story breaks down, because the croissant isn’t an old survival strategy at all: it’s an industrial-age walk-in, with a triumphalist cover story that streaked around the world long before the murky truth could get its boots on. Really and truly, crescent pastries are ancient (humans seem to have been making moon-shaped cakes for nearly as long as we’ve had flour and a moon), and the ancestor of the croissant is probably a curvy Mitteleuropean yeast roll called a Kipferl. The croissant itself became a part of French life no earlier than the 19th century, when August Zang, a Viennese baker and press baron, opened a pastry shop in Paris, introducing the country not only to the steam oven but also to the pastry that would one day be its most defining export. No one seems to know where that old burrowing-Turks story came from, although the diligent food historian Alan Davidson suggested that it crept into orthodoxy with the first edition of “Larousse Gastronomique” in 1938. Even in the broadly innocuous world of pastry, I suppose, trolls gonna troll.
But the croissant’s contentiousness isn’t limited to its origin story. For almost as long as this pastry has existed, people have been arguing about how to make it, what shape it should be, and whether its crunchy quiddity has been dented by the variety of bastards, imitators and parallel evolutions that have grown around it. As recently as 2017, a baker from Nice was reported as launching a “crusade” to save the “genuine” croissant from extinction, with the aggressor this time not the subterraneous Ottoman but the industrial processes that (he claimed) accounted for some three-quarters of France’s croissant consumption. The mass cultural apoplexy in 2013 around the introduction of the cronut by Dominique Answel, a baker from New York, meanwhile, pretty much speaks for itself. The cronut is a croissant/doughnut hybrid (just as its cousin, the cruffin, is what happens when daddy croissant and mummy muffin love each other very much) and, as lines formed around the block at Ansel’s bakery and new portmanteau imitators sprung up (“doissant”, “fauxnut” etc), it became clear that it was very hot property indeed. My favourite headline from the whole sorry media debacle is probably “People Are Now Exchanging Cronuts For Sex On Craigslist”, but it’s a wide and compelling field.
It is hugely time-consuming to make a good croissant, a fact that probably goes a long way to explaining the haze of artisanal mystique and bitter partisanship that surrounds the process. Here’s how you do it, broadly speaking: make a sticky dough with flour, yeast and milk. Let it rise for a few hours. Punch it down. Let it rise for a few more hours. Form it into a rectangle, and in that rectangle encase a massive slice of chilled butter. Roll out the dough. Fold the dough. Chill the dough. Roll out the dough. Fold the dough. Chill the dough. Roll out the dough. Cut the dough into isosceles triangles. Roll the dough again, into attractive rugby-ball shapes. Let the rugby balls rise. Bake them. Eat them. Collapse. Book a long holiday.
The problem here, of course, is that the day or so that croissants take to prepare stands in ludicrously extreme relation to the seconds it takes to gobble them. Pilgrims on this endless processional of patisserie often end up feeling, somewhere around the third roll’n’rise, that they wouldn’t have added much to their time investment had they chosen to plant, harvest and mill the wheat themselves, as well as milk the cow on the way to the kitchen. Even Elizabeth David, surely no slouch in the making-an-effort department, concurred. “I have to admit,” she wrote in “English Bread and Yeast Cookery”, “that at the end of it all I suffer from combat fatigue, and question whether croissants are really worth all the production involved.”
Well, quite. And to this already substantial faff another hassle is added if, like me, you have naturally hot hands, and need to dunk your glowing paws in iced water every few minutes to stop butter melting claggily into the flour. So unless you are making a massive batch, determinedly humblebragging on bakers’ Instagram or ensnared in a nightmarish zero-sum bake-off, making croissants is probably something to try once and then leave to the professionals – who, incidentally, have one more trick up their sleeve in the form of the pastry brake, a pedal-operated conveyor belt with an attached roller to squish the ingredients into perfectly laminated sheets.
At the sight of one of these, the home croissant-baker is likely to feel the same blend of relief and sadness that a lacemaker might have experienced at the advent of the Jacquard loom. As the fatted dough whizzes back and forth, thinned to a micro-pinstripe in yellow and cream, the agony of croissant-rolling becomes a distant memory, with the baker’s only tasks now to avoid getting a finger caught in the roller or treading so heavily on the pedal that the dough sheet is projected, fluttering, across the room.
It’s not as though the professionals can agree on croissants, either. To be eligible for the yearly competition organised by the syndicat des boulangers du Grand-Paris to find the city’s best croissant, you need to prove to the hungry jury that your croissant is manually shaped and fatted with nothing but the finest appellation d’origine contrôlée butter from the Charentes-Poitou region. This stern proscription on using anything but the finest butter (according to Elizabeth David, the practice of adulteration “accords ill with everything and most especially with one’s stomach”) has, however, long been defied by the legions of French bakers who have cranked out two versions daily: a croissant ordinaire, curved daintily in on itself like a crab and made with vegetable fat, and the croissant au beurre, plump and golden, obstinately uncurved and dripping with just the right kind of butter.
The plural of anecdote is not data, and the 19th arrondissement is a long way from the posh 16th, but in my old Paris neighbourhood several years ago it was the ordinaire and not the seductively glittering beurre that was carried off in bagsful by eager customers every morning, snaffled in the street and gobbled at the counters of the neighbourhood bars. Apparently they’re better for dunking in your coffee. There seemed to be fewer ordinaires about last time I was in town, though its cunning rebranding as a croissant naturel in one bakery suggests that vegan celebrity for the margarine croissant may be lurking just around the corner, even in France. And there you have it: the croissant, perennial breakfast of controversialists. Bon appetit, you wild rebel, you.