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The best croissant in Paris: the journey to awarding one patisserie the prestigious title

Flaky, fluffy and golden, the perfect croissant is a thing of beauty, but not all made the cut at the Concours du Meilleur Croissant de Grand Paris 2021. We take a look behind the scenes of a very French competition.

By Peter Yeung
Published 12 May 2021, 17:18 BST, Updated 15 Jun 2021, 14:19 BST
In Paris, the age-old tradition of croissant-judging is upheld in the most serious terms: jury members for ...

In Paris, the age-old tradition of croissant-judging is upheld in the most serious terms: jury members for the Best Croissant in Greater Paris Competition are sent a comprehensive, 11-article document outlining the strict rules of the competition.

Photograph by Peter Yeung

The first mouthful begins with a billowy crunch that’s like biting into a tiny, oven-baked cloud. Next, the comforting, yeasty aroma fills my nostrils as the glorious, golden flakes dissolve on my tongue. Then the sweetness of the caramelised crumb arrives, before the subtle saltiness of the butter takes over.

“Now that’s a real croissant,” says a fellow judge, visibly struggling to note down a score, such is his state of bliss. “It’s executed to perfection. If Marie Antoinette had offered these to the French people, there probably wouldn’t have been a revolution.”

“For the jury members, it’s a formidable — albeit delicious — task to consume and rate the croissants that qualify. White-aproned, silver-haired veterans of the bakers’ union distribute unlabelled platters of croissants around the room like a frenzied team of Oompa-Loompas.”

by Peter Yeung, judge, Concours du Meilleur Croissant de Grand Paris

Not all of the 100 or so entrants for this year’s Concours du Meilleur Croissant de Grand Paris (the Best Croissant in Greater Paris Competition) rise to this level of quasi-religious experience. But in the world’s capital of bakeries, where pastries are considered an art form and are the subject of fierce debate, this is a crucial culinary event.

“The Concours is an opportunity to shine a light on the finest work being done by French bakers,” says Franck Thomasse, president of the Boulangers de Grand Paris, the Bakers’ Union of Greater Paris, which organises the prestigious competition. “Croissants are a fundamental part of France’s culture and history — and we must celebrate that.”

Legend has it croissants date back to the siege of Vienna in 1683, when a local baker alerted Austrian forces to a surprise attack by the Turks. To commemorate the victory, so the story goes, the city’s bakers made pastries in the shape of a crescent moon (‘croissant’ in French), as seen on the Ottoman banners. Marie Antoinette, who came to France from Vienna in 1770, supposedly introduced the croissant to the court of France, where it was later popularised by the baker Louis Ernest Ladurée.

It's believed Marie Antoinette, who came to France from Vienna in 1770, introduced the croissant to the court of France, where it was later popularised by the baker Louis Ernest Ladurée.

Photograph by Peter Yeung

Even before judging begins, it’s clear this age-old tradition is upheld in the most serious terms: jury members are sent a comprehensive, 11-article document outlining the strict rules of the competition. Competing bakeries, for example, must deliver a neutral box containing exactly five croissants and an unmarked envelope with contact details to the grand headquarters of the bakers’ union, which is on an island in the middle of the Seine, between midday and 2pm on the day of the competition. Each croissant must weigh between 45g and 65g and be made using pure AOP Charentes-Poitou butter, a variety from western France prized for its unique flavour, achieved through traditional barrel churning. If these specific criteria are not fulfilled, the rules note dramatically, ‘it will lead to the elimination of the candidate’.

For the jury members, it’s a formidable — albeit delicious — task to consume and rate the croissants that qualify. White-aproned, silver-haired veterans of the bakers’ union distribute unlabelled platters of croissants around the room, almost never endingly, like a frenzied team of Oompa-Loompas.

Even though the building blocks of a croissant — leavened puff pastry layered with butter, folded and rolled into a thin sheet, wrapped into the familiar crescent form — are fairly basic, there’s a huge variety on show. Some flake and fall apart like a lamb shoulder stewed for days. Others hold firm around the cavernous air pockets inside. The beautiful honeycomb interiors differ like butterfly wings.

But as we dig into the 24 croissants that made it through the preliminary knockout rounds into the final, the pace begins to take its toll on some. “I’m beginning to have butter hallucinations,” gasps one judge. “I’ll need a strong coffee after this.”

Our task is to give marks out of 100 across four broad categories: 25 for ‘cooking’, 25 for ‘shape, aspect of the product, regularity’, 25 for ‘puffiness, texture, fondant’ and 25 for ‘flavour and smell’. In the case of a draw, the president of the jury will be called upon to cast the deciding vote. But that’s not required this time, for the 20th edition of the competition: the outright winner, announced on 11 May, is Frédéric Comyn of Pâtisserie Colbert, a dark horse in the runnings, from the Parisian suburb of Sceaux, whose croissants are infused with chestnut honey, giving them a sweetness, a reddish tinge and a particularly crispy texture.

“It gives me great pride to win,” says the 41-year-old, who began working as a baker more than two decades ago. “I’m very happy. For me, a good croissant should have a strong flavour of butter, it must be crispy on the outside but must melt on the inside. To be recognised is an honour and I’ll continue to uphold the tradition.”

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 16-17 July 2022 at London’s Business Design Centre. Find out more and book your tickets.

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