In these difficult and unprecedented times, it’s like we’re relearning how to fully appreciate the simple things around us. Here in France our trips outside are severely limited, but thankfully, our precious bakeries are still open and they offer us valuable solace in lieu of trips to the park, or wine and a meal in a local brasserie with friends. Never before have those crisp, fresh baguettes seemed so essential to daily life, or those neat lines of sweet things and pastries so comforting as confinement treats. So with this long overdue post, it’s off to the bakery we go, and this time we can ignore no further the Billy Big Balls of the bakery gang, the humble croissant.
As French as Camembert right? You’d certainly think so given the citizens’ love affair with the curved and puffy pillow. But hold the phones mes amis! The croissant is, in reality, about as French as the Yorkshire pudding, and nothing but an ex-pat pastry if you will, having set up home in France after moving in from Austria in the 18th century. And as if to rub un peu de sel into the wound, legend has it that the person responsible for its introduction is none other than disgraced queen Marie-Antoinette. It’s a bit like finding out your favourite childhood toy was made by Miss Trunchbull or something.
As is the case with culinary origins, accounts of the true beginnings of the croissant vary as much as the tastes of the people who eat them. But our backward-pointing curiosity telescope tells us that crescent-shaped baked goods have existed since pagan times, as a nod to the goddess of the moon. They were also a regular feature on the menus of monasteries as far back as the 10th century, and were known as panis lunatis, and took the form of a small crescent-shaped bread roll traditionally baked for Easter. Just out of the corner of our lens, we can see ye olde fake news legend of the shape of the bread echoing the crescent found on the Turkish flag, adopted during the Ottoman siege of Vienna, but we’ll throw that in the waste disposal where it belongs.
Fast forward a few centuries, and our magic carpet of baking discovery arrives in Vienna in any case, in the 13th century. Here we meet the kipferl, the grandaddy of our precious croissant, a similar curved bread enjoyed throughout the country for breakfast or with coffee. Here the gentle townsfolk enjoyed their simple treat for a few centuries more until a certain young daughter of an Austrian Empress scored a match with French King Louis XVI. Much as I panic buy Marmite when I’m back in the UK, Marie-Antoinette was keen to keep her beloved home comforts close, and thus shipped them over the French court where they were greeted with open mouths and tweaked over the next century until the croissant as we know it came to be.
Named after the waxing moon (second culinary bombshell coming up) there’s quite the debate in France over whether croissants should actually be straight, with some preferring the linear version to the curved original (with the word ‘croissant’ literally meaning ‘crescent’, this is utterly baffling). And get this, rather than a simple treat knocked up in a couple of hours, croissants actually take days to make, with an endless stream of rolling and resting steps the dough has to soldier through. Which is why in most bakeries in France the pastries you buy are actually (shock horror!) frozen and prepared when needed, though the quality is so high, even the Frenchiest French person is unable to tell the difference.
So there’s ‘making croissants from scratch’ struck off the lockdown to do list. Best to save one of those precious daily outings for a special trip to the bakery, and I guarantee in these circumstances, it’s going to be the best croissant you’ve ever had.
*Apologies for the lack of personal pictures, but I’ve actually been putting off a trip to the bakery until I’m utterly desperate, due to a mixture of fear of infection, civic duty and realisation that once I start eating croissants in isolation, there just isn’t any going back, and I may not be able to get out of the door again once it’s all over…