Of the many things to love in France, one of the most delicious yet most mundane is the croissant. It is nothing short of miraculous that a mixture as simple as flour, butter, milk and yeast and not much else can turn into complex layers of flaky crispness and chewy softness.
I have many happy croissant memories. My grandmother made a kind of croissant, which she or one of her grandchildren dubbed “piggies.” The secret ingredient, not very French, was mashed potatoes. I haven’t made piggies or croissants because I am spoiled, with delicious ones far too easily obtained at nearly any bakery. Perhaps luckily, our local bakery had awful croissants. The baker, a heavy drinker who sometimes was so overwhelmed by hangovers that he burned the bread and everything else, also was a chain smoker of the ancien régime, not the one in which clergy and nobility lorded it over the peasants, but the one in which smokers had the right to light up wherever they pleased, whether that be on the Métro, in a movie theater, or in a restaurant, other people’s lung be damned. Certainly a sole proprietor slaving away alone in his atelier had the right to puff at will, even after the laws changed in 2006 to forbid smoking in public places. We took our business to a nonsmoking bakery.
The baker had his retirement lined up; he found a young couple to buy out the bakery. Lo and behold, just before the couple signed on the dotted line, a young entrepreneur in the village put up a big sign on the grange he was renovating: Bakery opening soon. This space on the main road had plenty of parking, unlike the smoker-baker, who managed to get the mairie (city hall) to draw a 15-minute parking space on the street–just one. And 15 minutes would not dissuade, say, parents parking there while dropping off or picking up their kids from the school across the street–parking is scarce in the heart of old villages.
The young couple realized they would be outgunned by this new bakery and backed out of the deal. Now the baker continues to work–the bulk of his retirement was going to be the sale of his bakery, which now is worthless–but people are coming out of the woodwork to frequent the new bakery, where the bread is not only smoke-free but also delicious, and so fresh it’s usually still warm or even hot.
That reminds me of another bakery we used to go to, in a nearby village. It was on a little street barely big enough for a car to pass. No traffic, whether by car or foot. Sleepy. But it had a following. It was always packed, a jumble of people with no discernible line, but make no mistake, everybody knew whose turn it was. There was a constant buzz of conversation, plenty of it gossip, but as I didn’t live in that village I didn’t know who they were talking about so vividly. But if the gossip was anything like the other main topic, the weather, watch out. Every weather forecast I overheard at the bakery was 100% accurate.
The bakery had a pain de campagne (country bread)–a very large, deformed lump that had just the right crust on the outside–a little crunchy but nothing that would break a tooth–with a chewy inside whose bubbles were nice and even. The baker’s wife would use oven mitts to hand them out, and I would have to juggle it in my hands, like a nervous football player fiddling with a ball on the sidelines, as I walked back to my car parked way down the street where it was wider. The car windows would steam up so much so fast I’d have a hard time driving the last few feet of the five-minute trip home. The Carnivore and I would eagerly cut into the bread, butter it, with the (totally unnecessary but delicious) butter melting immediately. Sometimes we ate the entire loaf in one sitting. It cost €2.
Back in those days, we’d treat ourselves to croissants on Sundays. All things in moderation, pain de campagne excepted. Our kid was a baby then, and thus an early riser. Soon our kid was talking and demanding to be allowed to hold the bag of croissants for the ride home. On setting out the croissants with our coffee, we were surprised to discover all the ends had been eaten off already. Then came a period of rejecting the ends and eating only the middles. How I miss those days. Every time I see a baby, their thighs with those rings of fat, like croissants rising, almost ready to be baked, I want to gobble them up. No wonder the old fairy tales involved old ladies eating children. I read somewhere that it’s this delight in children that helps us get through years of wiping their poopy butts.
Sadly, that bakery closed quite a few years ago. For a while, we held our noses and went to the village smoker-baker, especially because I passed it on the school drop-off/pickup walk. Then a bakery opened in Carcassonne that was very good, with baguettes traditionelles, the old-fashioned kind, with a thicker crust and chewier sour-dough-like insides that make the regular baguettes just not worth one’s time. But sadly, that baker died, and while the guy who took it over is still better than the smoker-baker, he can’t hold a candle to our new bakery.
The consensus among our friends is that the new bakery is good to the point of being bad. “We’re going to gain weight with croissants like these!” one moaned.