What’s on your breakfast table today? Chances are, along with a pot of steaming coffee and glasses of orange juice, there’s an enticing pile of flaky, buttery croissants. These pastries, that sit half way between bread and cake, have over the last three decades, migrated across the Channel from the French breakfast table onto ours.
The croissant isn’t just a foodstuff, it’s a lifestyle. For me and my family it’s a Saturday morning thing, and judging by the queues that snake out of our local bakery at the weekend, for many others too. The croissant means it’s the weekend. It also says ‘Je suis européenne’.
And every time I bite into a good one, it sends me back to a moment in my childhood, when my father took the family abroad for the first time, to Brittany. We stayed in a big old hotel where, at breakfast the first morning, in a large rather foreboding dining room with a high ceiling and dark wood lining the walls, I had what I’ve come to think of as my Proust moment.
I was served a croissant. I can remember to this day the sheer delight and surprise to have discovered such deliciousness. And, like that great French author, in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, relating his wonder at biting into a little sponge madeleine as a child and the resurgence of that memory whenever he ate one subsequently, I recall that astonished delight when I tuck into a croissant today
According to Anna Lawson, food writer and blogger, the perfect croissant has ‘crisp, flaky layers and plenty of butter, but not so much that it’s greasy to the touch. It should have a nice balance between salty and sweet, and light/airy and squidgy/doughy’. Lamination is key to the croissant’s flakiness. The dough is stretched and layered with butter, rolled and folded many times before its finally rolled into a thin sheet. In the oven, the layers of butter melt away leaving the crispy flake.
A croissant road-trip
Felicity Cloake spent many months cycling around France in search of the perfect croissant (spoiler alert: she finds it in Paris in the Ble Sucre and Des Gateaux et du Pain). She describes that journey, the places she visited and their food in her book, awarding points out of 10 for each croissant she eats. One More Croissant for the Road is a delightful read for any pastry-loving Francophile. And also for those of us whose main criteria for choice of holiday gite is ‘can I walk to the nearest boulangerie’?
Fortunately, we don’t now have to cross the Channel to get that French patisserie hit as croissants are sold in every UK coffee chain and supermarket, and everyone I ask seems to have a personal favourite. For me, I think we are particularly lucky here in Brighton to have the Real Patisserie.
French patisserie brought to Brighton
Alastair Gourlay, the founder of the Real Patisserie described to me the way he too became seduced by the delicious freshly baked pastries he passed every day in the patisseries while on an Erasmus-funded stay in France as a student (Remember that fabulously enriching pre-Brexit cultural exchange scheme? RIP). After perfecting his craft as an apprentice in French bakeries, he brought the knowledge to Brighton and opened the first shop in 1997. The enduring success of his business, he believes, is down to the quality of the ingredients (including French flour and butter), and also the fact all Real Patisserie croissants are baked on the premises.
Cloake thinks it wasn’t Marie Antoinette who brought the croissant from Austria to France in 1770 as is often said, but an enterprising Viennese baker around 1850. Traditionally crescent shaped, croissants now come straight too. Warm or cold, with or without jam, cut or torn, dunked or not….they’re just a little moment of morning joy in our house. Bon appetit.