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A half-baked theory on the great croissant controversy

The recent debate about the woeful state of Spanish croissants has unleashed some passionate views. But doesn’t it also tell us something about Spain’s complex relationship with France?

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I have to admit, when it comes to the recent debate about the state of Spanish croissants, I’ve come to the table rather late. The furore itself was sparked by a blog post by food writer Mikel López Iturriaga in early February, in which he attacked his country’s version of the croissant on several fronts: from its outrageous size and criminally stale dough, to that utterly redundant glaze that so many bakers apply. By the end of his article, the croissant was, so to speak, toast.

“All these examples of baked, varnished paste which thousands of Spaniards consume for breakfast each day do not deserve to be called croissants,” he thundered.

It’s a harmless enough issue to tackle, you might think. López Iturriaga wasn’t wading into the tribal terrain of Spanish domestic politics, say, or defending the Libyan regime. But the post drew a passionate and overwhelming response, with nearly 700 comments on his blog, and an ensuing debate that included Spanish television, the international media (yes, I’m guilty) and, inevitably, Facebook and Twitter.

Interestingly most of the comments in reply to the article actually agreed with López Iturriaga, who compared the Spanish croissant (or cruasán, as it’s known here), unfavourably with its French counterpart.  For a country that is so proud of its burgeoning haute cuisine, Spain is more than willing to give its breakfast fare a good kicking.

There was, of course, also a certain amount of wanton hostility of the kind the internet seems to breed. If you like the croissants in France so much, wrote one gastronomically challenged patriot, go and live there. But such idiocy apart, López Iturriaga was right. Something terrible happens to the croissant, and to a lesser extent pastry in general, when you cross the Pyrenees and enter Spain.

Why?

Bakery teacher an online bread expert Javier Marca, who is cited in the original blog post and is also appalled at the quality of his country’s croissants, turned the question around when I consulted him.

“I don’t expect to find a good paella in France,” he told me. “They will never have a good paella there. So I think we will never have a good croissant here.”

He says both the process and the ingredients are at fault. French bakers are trained, drilled and even given exams in making their croissants appropriately crisp, flaky and light. They use very specific ingredients, particularly the butter, which must be first-class. In Spain, no such tradition exists, so no such rigour is applied to the process in most bakeries. Moreover the butter or -whisper it- margarine often used, isn’t up to the task.

When the spiritual home of the croissant is just across the border, it seems a shame not to allow some of its doughy dogma to waft over. But no, Spain resists. And resists might be the right word here. As Marca also pointed out to me, summarising decades of historical baggage with a shrug: “We don’t like French stuff in Spain.”

Decades of superiority in the kitchen probably hasn’t helped in that regard, but now it is the Spanish, not French, who have the upper hand as the molecular gastronomy of a generation of chefs takes the world by storm. The ladle is in the other hand. Twenty years ago, I could have put the inferior Spanish croissant down to inferior culinary skills. But now, poo-pooing the rigid diktats of French croissant-making is one way Spain can say: don’t tell us how to do things; don’t even tell us how to bake. And for that, maybe I can forgive Spanish bakers just a little.





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Published: Mar 8 2011
Category: Iberoblog
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=2294
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