Lifestyle & Belief

Rueing the Spanish croissant


Croissants are displayed at a bakery on Nov. 16, 2010 in Paris, France.


Francois Guillot

MADRID, Spain — Spain has killed the croissant. That’s the bleak assessment of food writer Mikel Lopez Iturriaga, who in a recent blog post accused the country’s bakers of creating stale pastries with no crunch and covering their product with an offensive sugary glaze.

“Spain’s ability to destroy the croissant has always amazed me,” he wrote, making unfavorable comparisons with France.

Little did he suspect that his forthright views would spark an intense debate about the state of the country’s baking. The article drew about 700 comments and sparked conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

Most of those who responded to the article agreed with it, lamenting how hard it is to find a good croissant in Spain. However, it also drew outrage from some readers, who accused Lopez Iturriaga of being unpatriotic and invited him to go live in France if he liked its food so much. But he clearly raised a sensitive subject: Readers even started arguing over which part of Spain has the best pastry.

“I never imagined that my article about croissants would unleash such passions,” Lopez Iturriaga commented days later.

There are several theories about the origins of the croissant, as Lopez Iturriaga wrote, such as that it was invented in Vienna or Budapest in the 17th century. Another theory maintains that a crescent-shaped precursor of the croissant originated in the Ottoman Empire. But there is little dispute that the modern croissant as we know it — buttery layers of flaky dough — was perfected in France, and Spain’s neighbor to the north remains its standard bearer. However, they are a standard item at Spanish bakeries.

“In France they know how to make it and they just do it and they are proud to do it that way,” said Javier Marca, who teaches baking in Madrid. “We try to keep it cheap and fast and make money out of it.”

Marca identified two fundamental problems in his country’s croissant-making: ingredients and process. He accused his colleagues of using inferior butter, or even margarine, instead of the top-quality butter used by the French. Moreover, Spanish bakers are not drilled in the art of baking croissants with the same obsessive rigidity as their French counterparts. The result is that the final product is often oversize, left too long in the oven, and, tragically for many, covered in a redundant glaze.

(Read about the classic French method and watch a Paris baker create his daily batch of croissants.)

For French people living in Spain, breakfast can be a trying time. Adeline Percept and Clement Perrouault are a French couple who live in Madrid and have had to adapt to what they describe as “the horrible sugar glaze and dryness” of local croissants.

After years of negotiating stale pastry, Clement has a simple solution: “The best way to have a Spanish croissant is to cut it in half and put it in your toaster. When it’s hot it’s better.”

Adeline is more damning and avoids the Spanish product altogether: “Ecuadorian bakeries in the center of Madrid are doing some not-so-bad croissants,” she sighed. “At least they’re better than the Spanish ones.” Ouch.

Spain’s relationship with France is complicated. Maybe that’s due to decades of feeling inferior in the kitchen. Maybe it goes back to Napoleon’s occupation of Spain in the early 19th century. Or perhaps it’s simply the dysfunctional nature of any relationship between two neighbors. Whatever the reason, Spaniards look across the Pyrenees with a combination of respect, irritation, envy and competitiveness.

The irony here is that Spain is currently a global leader in haute cuisine. Having long watched the French lead the world in this area, in recent years Spanish chefs have started to outshine their neighbors, hoarding plaudits and Michelin stars. Ferran Adria’s El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia has regularly been listed as the best in the world by Restaurant magazine, with his avant-garde recipes such as “cloud of carrot” and “Iberian ham tapioca” representing the creativity of a whole generation of Spanish chefs.

So Spain is producing some of the most remarkable and complex dishes known to humanity, yet the croissant — which requires only butter, flour, sugar, eggs and a little milk — continues to confound it. What’s going on?

Marca draws a distinction between the country’s top chefs and those who are cooking for normal Spaniards.

“In Spain we’re so proud about our Mediterranean diet and our high-quality products, but I don’t think that we really eat well,” he said. “So yes, on the one side there are those chefs doing amazing things with really good food and trying new things; and then there are the ordinary people eating at home and on that level it is actually a little poor.”

With this two-tier cooking culture, the outlook appears bleak for the Spanish croissant. One day, perhaps, light, flaky, unglazed marvels might start emerging from the ovens of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville. But in the meantime, we’ll just have to put our croissants in the toaster and hope for the best.