The croissant is an indispensable part of any French breakfast or pause café on a sunny café terrace. As quintessentially French as garlic and Gauloises. Except that it isn’t. It actually originated in Austria. More of that below. Yesterday was National Croissant Day, but that isn’t French, either. It’s an American festival. As far as I can tell, there is no equivalent in France, which may be a little surprising, given French people’s fondness for celebrating their products and dishes.
This flaky, buttery pastry in a crescent shape is similar to puff pastry. Do you like croissants? I’ll let you into a secret. I’m not that keen on them. I prefer pains au chocolat (or chocolatines, as they’re called down here), which are made from the same dough but in a rectangular shape. But then anything with chocolate in it floats my boat.
All sorts of legends are associated with the croissant’s origins, although none of them has been substantiated. The most commonly proposed is that they were invented to commemorate various victories over the Ottomans (the raising of the siege of Vienna in 1683 or the siege of Buda in 1686), whose crescent symbol adorned their flags.
The croissant’s roots can, however, be traced with reasonable certainty to its predecessor, the kipferl, in 13th-century Austria. This was a pastry made in various different shapes, sometimes plain, sometimes with a filling.
In the 1830s, a former Austrian army officer opened a Viennese bakery in Paris and imported the kipferl, which quickly became popular in its crescent shape and was re-baptised the croissant. References to it start to appear in the mid-late 19th century.
An elaborate process
Making croissants is an elaborate process. One pâtissier reckons there are 50 different aspects to master in order to make an authentic one. Since they are time-consuming, labour-intensive and not particularly profitable, it’s estimated that 80% of croissants made in France today are baked from industrially manufactured frozen dough, although this figure has not been substantiated.
I’ve been unable to find a figure for the number of croissants produced. However, in 2017, there were around 35,000 boulangeries in France, so you can guess that it’s a lot.
What should you eat with croissants? More butter (gilding the lily, perhaps)? Jam? Or should they be eaten au naturel, without embellishment? I think it’s a matter of personal taste. If I do eat one, I normally add jam. How do you prefer them?
I think croissants also lend themselves well to savoury treatment. I like to slice one almost through lengthways, fill it with ham and grated cheese, wrap it in foil, and bake it in the oven for 15 minutes or so until the cheese has melted. This is no doubt sacrilege, but how else does culinary innovation occur?!
Light at the end of the tunnel?
In other news, we were expecting to go back into lockdown at the end of last week. However, the government seems desperate to avoid that, and has instead ordered the closing of shopping malls of more than 20,000 m2 and the closure of borders with non-EU states.
Selfishly, we are relieved not to have to complete an authorisation form every time we leave the premises. But it remains to be seen whether the new measures have any effect on the numbers of cases. Unfortunately, my money is on being back in lockdown in the next few weeks.
In the meantime, the weather is rotten, but at least it’s warmer than during the early part of the month. The signs of change are now perceptible: the evenings are drawing out; the catkins on our hazel tree have suddenly sprouted and turned yellowy-green; and I’ve heard a woodpecker’s laughing jackass call and a blackbird’s territorial song in the past couple of days.
Tuesday is La Chandeleur (Candlemas), adapted from a former pagan celebration of the returning sun. To bring you a bit of sunshine in these dark days, here’s a picture of a Corsican sunset that I took on Cap Corse during our last visit nearly six years ago.
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