Not all of the 100 or so entrants for this years 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 worlds 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 Frances 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 citys 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.
Even before judging begins, its 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, its 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, theres 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. Im beginning to have butter hallucinations, gasps one judge. Ill 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 thats 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. Im 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 Ill continue to uphold the tradition.
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