This summer, I had a croissant so good it forced me to ponder my very existence. Made with flour freshly ground from locally milled grains, this perfect model of pastry emerged from the bakery's wood-fired oven. Its gentle aerated layers, sweet with butter, and golden (not browned!) crown justified the pastry's existence—and my own. This, I thought, is why the croissant, and I, were born—or, to be a little less poetic about the whole thing, This is why you bother waking up in time for breakfast. I did not glimpse the laminated dough sublime in a small French town or innovative Parisian pâtisserie, but at a bakery in Richmond, Virginia.
How did the croissant come to be perfected so far from its natural habitat? Ever since trying this wood-fired, hyper-local, utterly transcendent version, I've been thinking about croissants, and who eats them, and when, and where, and why. The people most devoted to those crescents of butter-laminated, yeasted dough are not the French. My working theory is that Parisians don't eat croissants. Americans do.
But croissants are so French, Charlotte! And there are so many of them in Paris! It is true, croissants are French. But are they so French? Are they more French than a chausson au pomme? A slice of quiche? An éclair? A mille-feuille? Who anointed them the Frenchest of the French pastries? Is it just possible that We The People did that?
For beginners, it's important to know—both from the consumption side and from the technical—that the croissant is viennoiserie, a specific subset of pastry that includes products made with fermented laminated dough or pâte levée feuilletée. The cornerstone of its category, it's the most basic form of leavened puff-pastry. That's not to undermine the skill required to get it just right. The simplest things are usually the hardest to perfect, and it would be wrong to assume that the French aren't proud of their croissants. By the same token, take a second to remember that cultures don't tend to define themselves by their simplest, best-known dishes. We don't say, "As American as a chocolate chip cookie." We say "As American as apple pie."
Consider the croissant's native habitat, the pâtisserie. If you've been to Paris, you've probably noticed there are many of them, in each neighborhood, every few city blocks. Every small French town has at least one, too. Why is that, do you think? It's because their stock-in-trade is a specialty; you won't see people making this stuff at home. When you pass by those shops, you'll notice locals inside. Look at how many different types of pastries there are, and pay attention to what those locals are buying; you won't observe tout le monde walking out with a croissant in hand.
Meanwhile, you do see baguettes toted around, en masse. Daily bread isn't just a turn of phrase. In France, bread is a necessity; pastry, a frivolity. There are different stores for each: the boulangerie for the baguette, the pâtisserie for the non-essential, regularly-indulged-in treat, snack, or dessert. We never picked up on that difference in the good old U-S-of-A when we started appropriating the comestibles of France. Most French-inspired bakeries here lump together bread and pastry, as well as the craft required to professionally produce each. As an extension of that sloppy thinking, we hold the croissant up as the token of it all. It is a synecdotal entity, representing French baked goods first; French food next; and, in its most generic semiological role, the very state of being French. Like a beret, or the Eiffel Tower, it's a visual synonym for that country's bleu, blanc et rouge.
If to Americans, France = croissant, and, accordingly, visitors show up looking for that symbolic pastry, then the French are forced to keep up appearances (or, at least, they stand to profit from doing so). But know this, tourists: That croissant you're eating? It's being baked for you.*
That is not how I like to eat when I travel. Same as you, I want to eat like a local—I want to enjoy what locals prepare for each other. So I'll order the palmier, the kouign-amann, the Paris-Brest, the St.-Honore or Opéra cake. I'll even take a pain au chocolat.** I will seek out the specialties Americans haven't yet begun to bastardize, master, reinterpret, or parody—when, ask yourself, have you ever had a canelé, as it was meant to be, on U.S. soil? Do you even know what that is? Maison Kayser in Paris is where you'll find them. Despite Eric Kayser's having opened numerous locations of his shop in New York, he has not brought his canelés with him. You've got to hop on a plane for them.
The same goes for those tightly spiraled escargots filled with chocolate and pistachio, or lemon and honeyed, nut-dense nougat (my favorite) at Du Pain et Des Idées, a boulangerie that happens to do sensational viennoiserie. They have croissants there as well, but why the hell would I buy one of those? I can get them back home, in airport terminals, at Starbucks, at Au Bon Pain, at Whole Foods, at bodegas and small-town bakeries. I can even buy a tube of raw crescent dough to stick in my oven. Or, if I'm really lucky, I'll return to Richmond and get one there.
* At this time, you might ask yourself the following: How many Brits do you know who adhere to a regimen of scones and clotted cream? Do any of them actually "take tea"? What percentage of the population is at high tea at 4 pm on the regular?
** Can someone explain why we call it a "chocolate croissant" in English, when its French name so clearly translates to "bread with chocolate"? I don't have a theory for that yet.