Oh no. What have I done?
I’m staying in a English seaside guesthouse, the kind that lacks those little touches that show it’s a labour of love for the owner - and I really should have known. It’s my fault, all this. I looked at the reviews in advance, and despite seeing they were...less than glowing, I went and booked a room anyway (hey, it was cheap and I was only staying one night). That’s a fair enough risk to run with a place like this.
But in these circumstances, you don’t extend that kind of calculated recklessness towards the breakfasts. That’s where you lose your savings (and they make their money back) on something zero-effort and tasteless that’s wildly overpriced and infinitely disappointing. In those situations, you pack up and move on, and grab some breakfast on the go. I should have remembered this.
But no. In a moment of madness when booking online, I’d ordered the “Continental Breakfast” (adding a third of the price of the whole room to the total). What’s facing me right now is my fault.
Along with the inevitable single-portion box of Rice Crispies, a rack of limp triangles of toast and a wizened tangerine is a brightly-coloured foil packet that’s emitting steam. A smell is filling my corner of the dining area (conspicuously empty at 8am, even though the place was fully-booked last night - everyone else was smart enough to skip breakfast). It’s a cross between hot cardboard and burnt jam. I can’t believe it. Not only did they serve a Eurocroissant, they microwaved it as well.
The Eurocroissant, like the “Continental Breakfasts” that blight rather too many low-end UK hotel stays, is a grotesque parody of something that makes European travel an absolute joy.
And it’s similarly a misnomer: there’s nothing particularly “continental” about weak coffee, orange juice chipped out the freezer and a yoghurt right on the cusp of evolution into a higher lifeform - and there’s nothing European or croissant-like about these damp junk-food pastries in their foil pockets, stuffed with unidentifiable fillings and gritty with sugar.
It haunts me that somewhere out there may be people who have had these, and never had a proper French croissant in France. They don’t know the magic, joy and wonder of it. (They could perhaps join us on a trip to France and learn what they’re missing...)
Firstly, let’s not give all the credit to the French here (although they deserve the bulk of it). What the world now knows as a croissant started out Austrian. It’s called a kipferl, and you can still buy them today from Austrian bakeries. They look very similar to croissants until you bite into them, and discover the inside isn’t softly layered, but fluffy, like the soft, sweet rolls that the French call brioche.
The history of the croissant’s official entry into France is well-documented. In 1838 (or possibly 1839), the Austrian entrepreneur August Zang opened a Viennese bakery in the middle of Paris - and as part of his attempt to Frenchify his goods, he tweaked the kipferl recipe to create what we recognise as a croissant today: intricately laminated, buttery and far richer in taste than its Austrian counterpart.
But beware: everything else you’ll read about the history of the croissant is tangled in legend, embellishment and fib. There’s not a scrap of evidence to prove its shape (a crescent, hence the name “croissant”) has anything to do with French forces vanquishing the Arab Umayyads at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, nor defeating the Ottomans in Vienna in 1683 - both enemies that marched under an Islamic crescent.
It’s telling that the latter explanation only starts appearing in records in the 20th Century, around the time France wholeheartedly embraced croissants as a national delicacy: it formally became a National French Product in 1920.
The key to a good master-crafted croissant is the layering. While a kipferl is made in the usual “form a lump and let it rise” manner, a croissant is fashioned more like a sword: laid down in layers, and then folded again and again. This means the pastry you eventually bite into could have as many as 80 separate layers within it. The reason they don’t stick together is the liberal - well, let’s be honest, colossal amounts of butter being used, giving the croissant its legendary creamy mouthfeel and topple-an-elephant calorific value.
If it just sounds like puff-pastry, by the way, it’s not: croissant pastry also uses milk, yeast and eggs, which is why it rises so spectacularly during the baking process. These more expensive extra ingredients are also part of why it was originally a luxury food eaten by the upper classes: like tea, croissants started out higher up the social class ladder and worked their way downwards to find the mass-appeal they enjoy nowadays.
That popularity is why you should be a little choosy about your croissants, even in France. A lot of cafes and even bakeries will sell you a variety made from frozen dough (by 2008, as much as 30% of all French bakeries were doing this). The real deal - ie. freshly baked on the premises - is designated with the Boulanger de France seal of approval, so look out for it as a mark of quality.
But on the whole, you’re pretty safe with a French croissant - and there’s little that’s more French than getting one in a cafe with your morning coffee. Trust them: they wouldn’t do to you what a lacklustre British hotelier would (even if they do dunk their pastries in their coffee with the same enthusiasm you’d see with Brits plunging biscuits into their cups of tea). Even the from-frozen variety of French croissant is relatively palatable - although a fresh, warm croissant will taste so good it may make you weep. Wherever you are in France, it’s always a breakfast worth having.
(If only this were true across the Channel!)