In Paris, frozen pastries pose as homemade. Here’s how to spot impostors.

When it comes to traditional French viennoiserie, irregular shapes and sour scents are good signs

(Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)
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PARIS — By the 1980s, France had a bread problem.

Small independent bakeries had made their own loaves for centuries, turning a daily baguette into a central tenet of life here. But as mass industry crept in, low-cost lookalikes made from frozen dough began to appear on the market. Customers walking out of their local bakery may not have known whether they were holding a factory-made loaf or a “fait maison" (homemade) product.

The French responded with regulation. Laws passed in 1993 and 1998 defined “baguette de tradition” and outlined advertising rules for bakery signage. Yet these laws left a loophole: There was no mention of pastries. A bakery can put anything it wants on its sign — including “artisan” or “artisanal” — and sell nothing but industrial croissants, pains au chocolat, and a dozen other types of egg-washed treats.

That means many visitors who want to indulge in traditional Parisian viennoiserie, the catchall term for yeast-leavened pastries often cut with butter and sugar, are being duped.

The vision many foreigners maintain of a flour-dusted baker rolling up triangles of buttery dough no longer matches the reality in thousands of French boulangeries. The majority of viennoiseries sold in France today are made by large corporations then sent — frozen — to bakeries and large chains in bulk. Industry groups such as the Fédération des Entreprises de Boulangerie (FEB) have claimed that industrial products account for 80 percent of the market, a figure that French TV station BFM published in a 2020 story. Chefs and bakers such as Thierry Marx and Dominique Anract, the president of another bakery and pastry confederation, Boulanger de France, challenge that figure. Marx puts it at 70 percent.

Thin profit margins for bakeries are a major reason behind the rise of industrial products, Marx says. “We are in the world of pennies,” he said. “Industry has capitalized on this and taken over the baking world.”

In recent years, a baker’s costs have steadily risen, from the price of butter to rents and labor. The price of pastries and bread, however, have not increased in parallel. Though there are no caps set by law, bakers say they are hesitant to increase their prices for fear of losing customers who have expectations about what a croissant or baguette should cost.

Last year, French daily Le Parisien reported that one industrial company offered croissants at 0.23 euros a piece. For Clement Buisson, the owner of La Pompadour, a bakery in Paris’s 16th arrondissement which makes everything from scratch, that is about two thirds less than what it costs him to make a croissant. Yet he sees value in his approach and believes baking in the traditional way means something to his customers. “People know exactly what they’re getting when they walk into our shop,” he says.

Large bakery chains such as Paul, La Mie Câline or Brioche Dorée, all ubiquitous at train stations, airports and near tourist attractions, fuel the misconception that industrial baked goods are the same as fait maison. They entice customers with signage that reads “pastries,” “viennoiseries” and “sandwiches” and displays of glimmering pastries. In reality, most, if not all, of their offerings are industrial and made off site, allowing them to cut costs and offer cheap goods at much better margins than a real baker.

Another source of pressure is large supermarkets that sell bread and pastries to consumers for as much as 75 percent less than the average boulangerie. A quick Internet search shows that supermarket chain Carrefour sells croissants and other viennoiseries for as little as 0.29 euros. Compare that to the 1 to 1.20 euros that bakeries commonly charge.

Didier Boudy heads the FEB, a trade group that represents the industry. He says in terms of quality, there’s both good and bad among artisans and industry alike. On the whole, though, he believes the standard nationwide is very high.

Authenticity is subjective — and potentially problematic — by nature. For many in France, industrial pastries taste just fine (though they may not admit it). But, if you desire your breakfast or afternoon snack to be made the old way, here are a number of tells to help you sort out the imitators.

1

Look for the logo

If a bakery calls itself a boulangerie, this only guarantees that its bread is made on site. That said, if the bread is fait maison, there is a better chance that the primary viennoiseries also will be. If a shop has “pâtisseries” and “viennoiseries” but not “boulangerie,” that often indicates that little, if anything, is made from scratch. Look out for the logo of Boulanger de France. This certification, created by the French baking confederation, guarantees that a bakery makes everything they sell — including pastries, quiches, and sandwiches — on site.

2

Watch out for too much variety

Chef Thierry Marx says, “If there are 45 products, be careful, something’s wrong.” If you see dozens of tartes, cakes, quiches, and pastries, the bakery is probably purchasing at least some goods to save time and lower costs. The presence of certain items signifies skill or care. For Marx, seeing a nice rye loaf is a good sign. “It means that the baker is passionate because this is a very difficult loaf to make.”

3

Seek out irregular shapes

According to Buisson, pastries made by hand usually have noticeable irregularities, especially when it comes to decorative touches such as frosting. If there are a few ugly croissants on display, that is a good sign! On the topic of croissants, Marx also notes that they often come out flat and straight when produced industrially, so look for those in a crescent shape with a bulging center.

4

Avoid the chains

The easiest way to ensure an industrial breakfast is to visit any major bakery chain or grocery store. Instead, wander to the nearest small bakery. The pastries will probably be better and the experience richer.

5

Trust your nose

Above all, trust your senses. Are there mostly tourists in line? How far is Montmartre or the Eiffel Tower? Does it smell sterile or alive with floating particles of sourdough starter? For Marx, a good bakery will have an aroma of licorice and a hint of alcohol, like the smell of fermented grapes.

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