On his way to the guillotine, Louis XVI sat down to six cutlets, half a chicken and two glasses of white wine. He went on to lose his head, but there were some institutions the French Revolution never succeeded in tampering with. Not quite 200 years later, much of the country still grinds to a halt for three hours a day to partake of a three-course lunch.
Given such dedication to the table, gastronomic pundits have long poohpoohed the possibility of another American-inspired revolution sweeping France—the Big Mac grabbed on the run. But in the nine years since the first set of golden arches sprouted over the Avenue de Charles de Gaulle, the French have gobbled up not only “le hamburgero,” but the whole Yankee fast-food craze, with a gusto that has left gastronomes with heartburn over the national loss of face.
No longer, however, are they taking the humiliation with their forks down. As the latest salvo in the “restauration rapide” wars, the French are fighting back with home-baked ammunitionfacing off against the Wimpy and Macburger with the national claim to culinary fame, the croissant. In less than a year, more than two bakers’ dozen of self-styled “Croissanteries” have sprouted up along the country’s most congested sidewalks, from the foot of Paris’ premier tourist attraction, the Pompidou Centre for the Arts (which now boasts nine Croissanteries within a four-block radius), to the harbor of Marseilles. Last week, the latest popped open its ovens in a Paris suburb, and this week the first Croissanterie is set to invade the Alsatian sauerkraut stronghold of Strasbourg.
While a McDonald’s spokesman insisted that the assembly-line croissant isn’t yet regarded as a threat, she did admit that they were watching developments. They scarcely need to look too far. On the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, a Croissanterie has arisen just four doors down from a set of golden arches, the better to compete for the favors of the glitz set in the nearby Palace disco. In any case, it’s difficult to tell one neon-drenched counter from another. The only signs that set a Croissanterie apart from a hamburger joint are the fluorescent picture menus on
the wall. These—instead of oversized steak haché and frites—feature glistening tableaux of gilded puff pastry in a range of permutations and combinations calculated to set an oldtime boulanger exploding over his yeast. Aside from the traditional humble croissant au beurre, on sale for 65 cents, there are $1.50 heresies stuffed with everything from roast beef, tomatoes and spinach to mushrooms, or gussied up in seas of almond-flecked chocolate sauce and baked around whole bananas.
Originally the brainchild of a massmarket baker named Jean Luc Bret, who launched his first Croissanterie in Paris last spring and now boasts seven other outlets, the croissant craze has attracted scores of imitators. The most celebrated is ready-to-wear designer Michel Axel, who opened his first Croissant Show (a pun on the French for hot croissant: croissant chaud), complete with lace curtains, on the Boulevard Saint-Germain just across from his trendy clothing boutique. Says Axel’s spokesman Suzelle Pietri: “He likes the idea of fast food, but he didn’t like American fast food.” So Axel’s croissant confections each boast tiny French tricolor flags. Not that such chauvinism
is allowed to stand in the way of profit. Last week, Axel exported the croissant war to foreign terrain by opening his first Croissant Show in London. He plans another on New York’s 42nd Street in April.
Canada is scheduled to get its first taste of the croissant rapide next June when Croissant and Co. opens in Toronto. In fact, as Axel found, foreigners are swallowing the Croissanterie even more enthusiastically than the French, despite its factory-made frozen sogginess. His London shop now serves up 500 more croissants a day than the 3,500 he bakes daily in Paris. The reason, says Pietri, is that “the English are accustomed to fast food.” In fact, as PaulLouis Thevos of Croissant and Co. laments: “France is potentially an enormous fast-food market, but the country is going to have to change its habits a lot before it really explodes here. What can you do when, in most of the provinces, everything still shuts down for half a day for lunch?” Even in truffleland, it seems, the fast croissant revolution could turn out to be a slow process.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.