October 20, 2016 | Feature
Croissants at a Crossroads
conquering the final frontier of French pastry
I grew up in Tunisia as a transplant from India. I don’t know if it was the flaky desert soil, the Mediterranean breeze, or the legacy of Hannibal towering above me on Carthage Hill, but I matured with a conqueror’s spirit. Unlike Hannibal, however, I conquered lands not with elephants but through food: Brownies were America, cheesecake was South Africa, and most difficult of all, croissant was Tunisia.
A proper croissant takes three days to make. When I finally decided to give the recipe a try, I condensed the process to seven hours. I set the timer and settled back to watch the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Part 1 & 2, getting up every hour to unpack the dough and add another chunk of butter, not even bothering to keep count of how many calories I was pressing into the fleshy dough.
When it had finally risen, I picked up my four-year-old cousin and deposited him on the kitchen countertop. We both watched intently as Paul Hollywood of The Great British Bake-Off disciplined his dough, yanking it and then smoothly rolling it into the familiar crescent shape. I let my cousin sprinkle chocolate shavings (everywhere outside of the intended target) and roll the triangle, pulling the long end fiercely just like in the video.
My dough soon ran out but my cousin hadn’t had enough. I set him to work with Play-Doh. As he sat on the floor, mimicking my moves, neither of us knew that he was participating in the tradition of night-owl bakers, war campaigns, and Ottomans on horses.
A sharia committee in Aleppo, Syria, has banned croissants. You may imagine this as a protest of its colonial roots: Archaeological data has shown how “food practices were particularly important in French strategies to absorb the native into the colonial body and protect imperial culture against a constant assault on the senses” by creating a hierarchy of taste that “civilized” local foods through French cooking practices. Or as a cost-cutting measure because of how much butter (several kilograms) or labor (multiple days) they require. In fact, at the root of the declaration is the croissant’s offending shape, which celebrates European victory over Muslims four centuries ago in another part of the world.
In 1683, or so the origin story goes, Vienna was under siege by the Turks. The bakers’ work never stopped, and so they were the only ones awake in the middle of the night, kneading and proofing and rolling and shaping, while the rest of the city slept. They were also the only ones to hear the clink! of Ottoman tools under their feet as the Turks attempted to tunnel underneath the walls of the city. Dusting their hands on their aprons, they ran to alert the city’s defenders. Soon, King John III of Poland arrived to the rescue with an army that forced the Turks to retreat. The next morning, to celebrate their victory, the bakers made a pastry in the shape of the crescents they had seen on the flags of the enemy. They christened it Kipferl, the German word for crescent.
Food has a way of infiltrating places, for reasons good and bad, colonial or otherwise. It becomes enmeshed in an identity to a point where cutting off a bit of “them” is cutting off a part of you. The question of perversion/improvisation becomes hazy. Take for example the recent Carbonara-gate scandal and the problem of the one pot pasta that have swept Italians up in arms ladles against the French and Americans.
Croissants in particular are imposters: They worm their way into a culture until they have defined the place so thoroughly that you can’t imagine not having one, steaming slightly, waiting for you in the morning at the breakfast table. What to do about ham and cheese croissants, zaatar-filled concoctions, German “Laugencroissant” with lye, a leaner and meaner version from Switzerland called the Gipfeli, with less butter than its French counterpart, and most obscene of all, the Cronut, a deep-fried, cream-filled doughnut-croissant?
At first glance, the ban might not seem like a newsworthy political event. But it does not only concern a pastry. This is history—my history.
When I labored over the dough that morning with my cousin, I didn’t just want any croissant—for that, I could have picked up one of the packs of frozen dough at the supermarket. I wanted the one that came in a white paper bag with Délice written on the side in purple, with brown flakes gathered at the bottom as evidence of the truck ride that had brought them to me and a chocolate bar perfectly intact, magically nestled inside with no exit or entrance wounds to be found. Every morning at seven o’clock they arrived from one of the oldest bakeries in Tunis and no matter how many we ordered, there were never enough to satisfy my school’s appetite.
All 300 or so kids and teachers aimed to get out of first period early so they could be in line before the croissants ran out. My French teacher even let us out five minutes early whenever we had him for first period and made a beeline for the store. We didn’t complain.
We all had our different ways of eating it—some ate all the buttery, stretchy flakes around the chocolate bar, like eating a fish to avoid the bones, so they could eat the chocolate bar last. I ate mine gingerly, trying not to think about the amount of margarine I was consuming. I might have been the only one thinking about how to make the delicate layers and flaky texture that shattered with every bite.
Croissants are made from laminated dough, which means that the dough is layered with sheets of butter. The number of turns—the process of folding the dough and butter layers over themselves—gives the maze-like depths to a croissant. When they’re baked, the dough rises because the moisture inside turns to steam, puffing the layers. You have made a perfect croissant, Pastry Chef François Payard says, when you cut it in half and see “alveoli—a term that normally refers to the bunches of tiny sacs in our lungs.
A scene: I see the French colonizers taking over the reins from the Ottoman Beys, the seventh in the long series of Tunisia’s conquerors. The French resident-minister, Paul Cambon, has orchestrated a procession from Ali Bey’s La Marsa palace to the Bardo Palace. Under the ceiling of the Bardo, he invests him as the new Bey in the name of France. Thousand-year old mosaics, remnants of past Roman conquests, and grimacing masks of the Phoenicians surround them. Do they wonder if they will be as transient as those before them? The food they eat in celebration, at least, will not: Cheese and bread are as Tunisian as they are French, so much so that they are the first foods mentioned on Wikipedia’s Culture of Tunisia page, even before brik and couscous.
Whether the croissant ban in Aleppo will lead to a wave of bans across former French colonies remains to be seen. I doubt it. The croissant will spring forth in one form or another. Last year, I left my home in Tunis, where I had lived for 12 years, and came to the United States for college. I now had another stop to add to my answer: “I was born in India, grew up in Tunisia, and now live in the US” Perhaps it was fitting then, that one of the first things I saw as I entered one of the over-priced campus eateries was a croissant lying behind a glass display, the harsh light revealing its frozen dough exterior and hinting at its plastic interior. For better or for worse, a bite of home would follow me everywhere.