I Went on a Croissant Safari in Paris

Times are tough in Paris. The cost of high-quality butter has driven many bakers into the arms of wholesalers specializing in frozen croissants, so I set out on a quest to unearth the best buttery, flaky croissants around the City of Lights.

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May 9 2014, 2:08pm

All photos by the author

After having a Damascene moment with a croissant from a random bakery on a brief visit to Paris, author Seb Emina was determined to try and match—if not beat—the experience. He spent 12 hours wandering the streets in buttery delirium on behalf of MUNCHIES in search of pastry perfection.

On a brief visit to Paris about two years ago, I went to whichever bakery happened to be nearest to me and asked for a croissant. As soon as I bit into the bulging, golden crescent they handed over, I knew that this was the most perfect pastry good I had known. Unfortunately, the joy of devouring it was quickly soured by irritation about what it meant—that every croissant I'd ever been sold in London had been, without exception, a mediocre imitation and barely worthy of the name.

So this was a utopia—France—if not quite yet of egalité, then of baked goods. The nation where even the most basic croissant makes what's on offer beyond its borders taste like a mere bread boomerang.

But even in Paris, amazing croissants are not in every corner boulangerie. Times are tough. The cost of high-quality butter has driven many bakers into the arms of wholesalers specializing in frozen and pre-prepared croissants. To be fair, these don't taste awful. They're usually still better than what you get in Britain. And yes, even in places in East London where the baristas do their shirt buttons up all the way to the top. The tell-tale signs of bad bakeries involve tacky pink awnings where the croissants are bland and stale, along with the shop aromas that are too simple, too consistent.

The random bakery around the corner from where I was staying turned out to be kept by one of the best bakers in Paris. It's called Les Pains d'Alexis and is off the Boulevard Port Royal in the outer part of the Fifth Arrondissement. These days, I am in Paris most of the time, so that's my local spot. The owner, Alexis Anton, is a 30-year-old man who has spent his entire adult life baking, starting with a five-year apprenticeship in 2001. He has been at his current premises for four years and earned his stripes at a string of Paris's more prestigious bakeries, including a stint at The Bristol Hotel. I decided to go and see him to find out his perspective on France's trademark breakfast pastry.

I asked him what qualities the ideal croissant should possess. "I find a lot of croissants to be too long and flat," he said. I like them to be shorter and more plump. And you have to use really good butter, the more expensive stuff."

Butter is key. An all too common mistake is that of ordering the dreaded croissant ordinaire which contains no butter at all, only margarine. You are looking for the croissant au beurre.

Anton showed me the basement room where the goods are made, a maze of ovens and fridges containing intricate pastries in different stages of their pre-counter adolescence. A tough looking man with a tattoo was deftly folding a giant rectangle of pale pastry—enough for 45 pains au chocolat. Anton picked up a specimen that had already been shaped and told me to look closely at the layering. The repeated process of flattening, folding, and cooling had created too many layers to count accurately without a magnifying glass—a sure sign of superior viennoiserie.

I had to wonder, if the best croissant I'd ever had was from a randomly selected bakery, what must the blue-ribbon croissants be like? Thankfully, every year the artisanal bakers' association for the Paris area releases a list of the finest croissants their territory has to offer. In understated style, it is merely uploaded to the website as a PDF, but for anyone who likes to eat flour-based foods in the French capital, this is far more important than the Oscars.

Using the list—its full title is 13eme Concours du Croissant Francilien au Beurre AOP Charentes-Poitou—as a vague guide, I spent a full day on what was initially a croissant safari but ended up feeling more like a croissant crawl, given that I lost the ability to think straight and all the venues began to blur into one. It was impossible to visit all of the venues on the list, for reasons of common sense but also due to the baffling vagaries of bakers' opening times. I set out, of course, without having eaten breakfast, and hungrily anticipated the first croissant.

Philippe Marache of 92 Avenue de la République

It's closed. Why is it closed? I tried no croissants here.

Comptoir Gana, 54 Rue Oberkampf

Comptoir-Ganaextgana-croissant

Gana's croissant, before it was demolished

It wasn't on the list. I had a lot of croissants to get through, and adding another to the itinerary was bizarre, but it was open, had a good reputation, and the earlier lack of breakfast now trumped everything. The line was perfect, featuring enough people to make you feel part of something, to let the anticipation to build, and to allow you to picture yourself biting into several of the elaborate goods behind the counter. Especially those you will not buy. When I own a boulangerie I will hire people to form a perpetual line of this length.

As for the croissant, it was incredible. Crisp and fresh on the outside and chewy, elastic and pillowy in the middle. It tasted of baking, ovens, and butter from a good farm. Sometimes, it's as simple as that.

Gana-Open

Du Pain et Des Idées

pain-des-ideesPainidees-croissant

Yes, it is an odd shape

Du Pain et des Idées—"bread and ideas"—feels more like a blissful hallucination than an actual local Paris bakery. There are huge mirrors, a lovely worn-out shop sign, shelves stacked high with picture-perfect loaves, and rustic (but never twee) bits of practical-looking bric-a-brac lying around here and there. The croissant—last of its batch—was excellent: delicate and soft with something of the fairy tale illustration to its slender, hand-made shape.

Lionel Fauré of 59 Rue de Saintonge

boulange-patissier

There is something wonderful about the approach to this place, whose sign like that of so many others offers no name, only a function—'boulanger patissier'—as if the act of even naming the shop would be a distasteful branding exercise.

Saintongeint-interior

Inside, a small mob jostled for the attention of the man behind the counter. The croissant was very light and incredibly flaky, with a perfect crunch to its shell, but it was also low on butteriness and a little saltier than the others.

Saintonge-croissant

It was a very good croissant. Served anywhere else in the world, it would be an epiphany, but I found myself thinking that those sold by Les Pain d'Alexis—my happenstance local—are better.

Les délices de Saint-Martin, 24 rue Saint-Martin

Saint-Martinext-exterior

The three-strong family of 'Julien' boulangeries are regular fixtures on bakers' association PDFs. This branch is not only on the latest croissant list but is the most recent winner of the 'best baguette' crown. The room was packed. A couple was kissing passionately outside, as if overwhelmed by their proximity to such stellar baked goods.

SaintMartin-croissant-interior

The croissant was, well, fine. A fair assessment must take into account the fact that it was late in the day and I was saturated with croissant and barely able to think. This was less an alert border collie of a croissant, and more a middle-aged pub spaniel.

Les Pains d'Alexis, 18 Rue Flatters

Alexisinterior

Two days after I had recovered, I paid another visit to Alexis Anton. The post-safari croissant was as delicious as the first. If anyone tried to make one like this in Britain they'd likely be paid a quick visit by sinister provincial baking lobbies to observe what a shame it would be if something was to happen to their bread oven. It was crispy and meadow gold on the outside, the centre soft and fluffy, but with just the right elasticity.

Alexis-croissant

It was the flavor of the butter that brought it all together heavenly, or at the very least, Alpine. It's strange, really.

Alexis-croissant-interior

This was the best croissant in Paris and I had just chanced upon it, like someone who just happens to walk through Hampton Court Maze without seeing a dead end.

Seb Emina is co-author of The Breakfast Bible, published by Bloomsbury.