How Did the Croissant Become a French Staple?

CroissantsCroissants are ubiquitous in Paris. Every pastry shop and boulangerie makes them. Every café sells them. A typical Parisian breakfast? Croissants and coffee.

And for travelers to the City of Light, indulging in a buttery, flaky croissant (or several) is every bit as important as a trip to the Eiffel Tower or a bateau ride on the Seine.

But how did this simple pastry become so ingrained in French culture?

Croissant at LadureeNo one is absolutely certain.

According to legend, the Austrians developed the crescent-shaped kipfel (sometimes spelled kipferl) in the 1600s during the Ottoman Turks’ siege of Vienna.  A baker was reportedly working into the wee hours and heard the Turks attempting to tunnel under the walls of the city. The military was alerted, and collapsed the tunnel onto the invading Turks, saving the city. To commemorate the victory, the baker created the crescent-shaped pastry to mimic the Islamic crescent moon symbol, allowing the Viennese to symbolic devour their would-be conquerors.  (Some Islamic nations, most notably Syria, even ban the production or sale of croissants.)

CroissantsBut Hungarians tell a different version of the same story, except indicate that the baker who saved a city and introduced the croissant was from Budapest.

Some say the Austrian croissant was introduced to French society in the late 1700s by Marie Antoinette (who was born to the Austrian Hapsburg royal family before being married off to Louis XVI).  Marie Antoinette reportedly missed kipfel pastries, and French royal bakers created the croissant according to her specifications.  The croissant was so popular with the French aristocracy that it became ingrained into the nation’s culinary heritage.

Croissant breakfastA much less dramatic croissant-origin story (and one that many believe to be true because of its decidedly mundane nature) places the introduction of the pastry to the French in the early 1800s by an Austrian artillery officer who opened up a bakery in Paris. August Zang founded his bakery Boulangerie Viennoise on the Rue de Richelieu in 1838-1839, and popularized many of his native country’s desserts.

As the first recorded mention of the croissant in French culinary books doesn’t occur until 1853 in “Des Substances Alimentaires,” it seems logical to many historians that Zang’s bakery was the vehicle that introduced the croissant to French culture.

CroissantsWhat is clear is that by the late 1800s, the croissant was considered a staple among France’s more affluent citizenry.  In 1872, Charles Dickens wrote in his periodical “All the Year Round” that the “dainty croissant” was a typical breakfast item to be served on the “boudoir tables” of the French well-to-do.

And it’s been wildly popular in France ever since.

As mentioned above, one can buy a croissant in literally hundreds (if not thousands) of venues all across Paris. But where can you taste a truly outstanding version of this French staple?

Croissant and hot chocolateFortunately, there’s an annual competition, called the Concours du Meilleur Croissant au Beurre AOC Charentes-Poitou, to find the very best butter croissants in the City of Light (and there is a distinct taste and price difference between croissants au beurre and croissants ordinaire, which are made with cheaper margarine). Here are the 2014 winners:

First place: Boulangerie Lyczak, 68 Rue Paul Vaiillant Courturier in the southeastern suburb of Malakoff (Metro: Malakoff-Rue Etienne Dolet)

Second place: Boulangerie Schou, 96 Rue de la Faisanderie, in the 16th Arrondissement (Metro: Porte Dauphine/Rue de la Pompe)

Third place: A tie between L’Artisan des Gourmands, 60 Rue de la Convention, in the 15th Arrondissement (Metro: Charles Michels/Boucicaut), and Douceurs et Traditions, 85 Rue St. Dominique, in the 7th Arrondissement (Metro: La Tour Maubourg)

CroissantFifth place: Au Duc de la Chapelle, 32 Rue Tristan Tzara, in the 18th Arrondissement (Metro: Porte de la Chapelle)

Sixth place: A tie between Le Grenier a Pain des Abbesses, 38 Rue de Abbesses, in the 18th Arrondissement (Metro: Abbesses), and Liberty, 39 Rue des Vinaigriers, in the 10th Arrondissement (Metro: Jacques Bonsergent)

Eighth place: La Fournee Gourmande, 9 Rue de la Mairie, in the southern suburb of Chatillon (Metro: Chatillon-Montrouge)

Ninth place: Boulangerie Pichard, 88 Rue Cambronne, in the 15th Arrondissement (Metro: Vaugirard/Volontaires)

Tenth place: A tie between 134 Rdt, 134 Rue de Tureene, in the 3rd Arrondissement (Metro: Filles du Calvaire/Oberkampf), and Boulangerie-Patisserie Colbert, 49 Rue de Houdan, in the far southern suburb of Sceaux (RER: Sceaux)