James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

The Ultimate Everyday Luxury

The Ultimate Everyday Luxury

Croissants in Paris

The croissant is the ubiquitous, unassuming foot soldier of patisserie, the breakfast staple that lines the front rank of bakery displays from Paris to Patagonia. Often overlooked, frequently underappreciated, but a good one is the least expensive that true luxury can get. They are also fiendishly laborious to make. From scratch, we’re talking a 10- to 14-hour process: pastry and butter continuously folded over one another then chilled, until through some sorcery the heavy essence of butter is moulded into a form that can be bronzed into a honeycomb of air and light.

Enter Pauline, the unassuming boulangerie that opened just over a year ago immediately opposite my Paris apartment. I still remember the slow summer of its construction, my girlfriend and I languidly watching the bakery take shape outside our window, joking with one another about how good it might turn out to be. Neither of us really expected much—our place is only in the unfashionable 19th arrondissement, after all—but there’s always going to be some magic that accompanies the construction of a new bakery, and it was nice to imagine.

An aside here about Parisian boulangeries: their quality varies and at times they can seem as numerous as stars in the sky. Before Pauline opened, there were six within a five-minute walk of my front door. Six! I’ve often wondered if there even exists a route across Paris that does not pass a bakery entrance: either there is not, or if there is, it invites so many loops and switchbacks that it would take months to complete. So it was no small thing that immediately on opening it was clear to me that Pauline shopped the best croissants in the capital.

A disclaimer: I have in no way been put up to say this. I don’t know anyone who works in Pauline beyond basic “bonjour” pleasantries. I haven’t even mentioned to them my absolute admiration of their craft. It is simply a fact, and one that’s been echoed by every other person I’ve introduced to the patisserie, Pauline’s croissants are phenomenal. They are the perfect symphony of texture and taste: flaky though never dry, doughy though never too moist, a finely tuned balance between savory and sweet.

But who am I to make this statement? France takes its baked goods as seriously as other countries take war, and there are, after all, competitions for this kind of thing. The official holder of 2015’s “Best Croissant in Paris Award” is one Benjamin Turquier. He shops his prize-winners in the 3rd Arrondissement, which, in the good name of fairness, I’ve recently tried.

Now, I’m not going to say that Turquier’s croissants are not also delicious. They have an almost biscuity crust and a rich butter flavor that tastes like the rural past. Like Pauline’s, they represent one of the closest things to a work of art that one could ever hope to buy for a euro. And yet on a certain level, Turquier’s could never be quite as good as the ones I bought in my local. For croissants are not, nor do they aspire to be, a three-Michelin Star experience. That is to say, no matter the individual croissant’s inherent quality, it should never on its own be “worth the trip.”

The essence of the best croissants lies in their quotidian-ness. They are the ultimate daily luxury, best enjoyed from an establishment less than five minutes from your door. And if that establishment’s croissants can go toe-to-toe with the very best the rest of the world has to offer, so much the better.

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