Among other things, the French are freaky about bread. It played a role in their revolution (think of Jean Valjean and Les Misérables), and Parisians have been known to incite to riot with any attempt to raise the price of their beloved baguette. It’s ironic, then, that the current champion of pain francais is an American. Stephen Kaplan is an academic who took up the post-war decline of the baguette as a personal cause, and it is due in large part to his efforts that the iconic loaf is on the rise again. (Serious readers might want to tackle his tome, the 740-page The Best Bread in the World: The Bakers of Paris in the 18th Century. No, I haven’t.)
From the get-go, foreign influence was responsible for that other icon of the French bakery trade, the croissant; without it, the ritual morning cup of café au lait would be just muddy warm milk. Stories vary, with origins variously cited as Vienna or Budapest, and the shape allegedly derived from the crescent symbol denoting invading Turks — biting into a crescent was thus symbolic of consuming the enemy, as the tale goes. Austrian-born Marie Antoinette’s name is frequently mentioned as well. Whatever the truth, the pastry appears to have found its first large audience in Paris with the opening of the Boulangerie Viennoise in the 1830s.
It seems reasonable to speculate that a creation that came to France from another source ought to be easily exportable from France as well. If memory serves, its first mass-market appearance in San Antonio was in the early ’70s at the Oak Park Handy Andy, whose bakery was then under the guidance of Spanish-born French restaurateur Guillermo Ardid. But in the intervening 40 years or so, little progress had been made. “It looked lovely but was barren of odor and taste,” said Kaplan of the mid-century French baguette; throw in unconvincing texture, and much of the same could have been said of our commercially baked croissants — until recently.
More speculation is required regarding the genesis of the current croissant renaissance in San Antonio, but there seems to be one in the works. Croissants’ second coming, not long after the first, may perhaps be attributed to Francois Maeder who operated the now long-defunct Alamo Café and Bakery on West Commerce at St. Mary’s before taking over Crumpets in Alamo Heights (since moved to Oakwell Farms). But its more recent resurgence may also have been spurred in part by the opening of Bistro Bakery by Damien Watel and his mother Lucille. The C.I.A. bakery followed, and now Central Market is touting models, utilizing genuine French butter, as being “as good as any you’ll find in Paris.”
Now there’s a gauntlet waiting to be plucked from where it was flung. Accordingly, I looked at croissants, both butter and pain au chocolat (chocolate-filled), from all over the city — measuring them, weighing them, tasting them, examining their texture — and the result is the Honor Rolls chart below. Note that size and weight are only virtues if the taste and texture are good; a lot of nothing is still nothing. •
Taste: Sheer butteriness; for the chocolate croissants, both amount and quality of chocolate also figures in.
Texture: Flakiness and a degree of openness are virtues; breadiness is not.
Appearance: Golden color preferable to pale or over-browned; lofty better than flat; artful crescent shapes rated highest.
Size: In general, big and (relatively) light rated higher than small and heavy. Cost: Cheap is good.