We all know the beloved croissant; the fat curl of flaky pastry, often stuffed with almond paste, raisins or thick, oozing chocolate. But from where did this pastry come to take a place in every British coffee shop, supermarket and hotel breakfast? And is it because of the croissant that Paris is the centre of the pastry world?
While the basic origins of pastry can be traced back to ancient Mediterranean civilisations, it is in France that the rich choux and puff pastry were developed. Marie de Medici is believed to have played some part in transferring puff pastry from Tuscany to Paris, probably around the 15th century, but it is the Viennese kipfel, a type of sweet bread, on which the croissant is believed to be based. The kipfel was brought to Paris in the late 1830s by August Zang who founded a Viennese bakery there. References to croissants as an established French bread crop up as early as 1850 and, while the croissant was not brought to Paris by Marie-Antoinette as is commonly believed, she did have a German cook and probably ate the kipfel, or even the croissant, herself.
After the fall of the French monarchy, Parisians quickly regained their appetite for high cuisine and men such as Jean-Baptiste Dalloyau and Louis Ernest Ladurée recognised the new bourgeoisie were largely occupied with emulating the old aristocracy’s way of life, and established patisseries that could cater to this. In particular, Antonin Careme (1784-1833) is generally credited with elevating French pastry to a high art. The revolution also abolished guilds, meaning that any chef could sell any product, so giving rise to a new class of bakers and pastry-cooks.
By 1869, the croissant was a Parisian breakfast staple, even mentioned by Charles Dickens in 1872 as the bread of the workman and the soldier. 17th and 18th century chefs introduced new recipes such as brioches, Napoleons, cream puffs and éclairs. And in the 19th century, Paris became home to the first open-air café of baked goods, illustrating Paris’ pioneering developments not just in recipes and pastries, but also in the accessibility and delivery of the product. At the end of the 18th century there were 100 pastry-cooks in Paris but by 1986 this had risen to 40,000 pastry-cooks across all of France.
The 19th century saw steady industrialization in France. The Exposition Universelle world fair in Paris in 1889 resulted in a huge growth in hotel building and tourism, which gave foundations to the café culture of Paris so well-known today. These years also gave rise to numerous shopping arcades that provided clean, dry places for the ever-growing bourgeoisie to shop. The patisserie sector was not to be left behind and saw its own growth within the petty bourgeoisie with small, independent entrepreneurs. Into the 20th century, businesses that are well-known today, such as PAUL, opened and expanded before bursting into the 21st century with shops all over the world. Many patisseries in Paris remain independent and unique, savouring the wealth of history behind them.
It is interesting to note the role of bread and pastry in France’s political history: Parisian bread riots were the foundations of the French Revolution in 1789 and the Paris Commune in 1871. Conversely in May-June 1968, while workers were on strike all over France, the bakery workers – led by a Communist Party threatened by the May movement – were among the few who carried on working throughout.
Today, the term ‘patisserie’ remains a legally controlled title in France and Belgium that may only be used by bakeries that employ a licensed maître pâtissier (master pastry chef). However, 30-40% of croissants in French bakeries are now frozen, in response to the American fast-food culture, yet the croissant continues to be the most recognised French food item in the world.