Question: In France, if you choose a croissant that’s straight rather than curved, what ingredient is it legally required to contain?
Answer: Pure butter
Here in the U.S., the shape of a croissant might simply reflect the whim of the person who made it—but French boulangers don’t take such things lightly. By law, only a croissant made with 100% pure butter can wear a straight shape as a badge of honor. A croissant made with any other fat, such as margarine or (sacrebleu!) oil, must disclose its impurity with a curved shape. Of course, you could choose to shape a pure butter croissant into a crescent without running afoul of the law, but if it implied that it might contain lesser ingredients, why would you?
In a country that fought for years to have its cuisine included on the UNESCO World Heritage List (and won), distinguishing quality is now more important than ever. Much to the dismay of French gourmands, more and more bakeries are cutting corners by purchasing premade, frozen croissant dough made with oil—and the unwitting public deserves to know the difference.
In fact, the croissant law is just one of several guidelines that France has adopted over the years in hopes of preserving its culinary integrity. Here’s a look at a few others:
- In house, or out of luck: In 2014, the French government passed a law known as “fait maison” (homemade), which required that restaurants use a special logo to disclose whether they made food from scratch. It sounded great in theory—but the culinary scene revolted due to some irreconcilable ambiguities. For example, is it such a bad thing for chefs to purchase sausage or cheese from an expert versus tackling the complex process on their own? No—and the law acknowledges this by exempting these types of products. But other exceptions, like fresh pasta, puff pastry, and even stocks and sauces—basic building blocks of traditional French cooking—make less sense, allowing chefs to cut corners and still call their dishes “homemade.” This, many argue, renders the fait maison designation meaningless.
- Pure bread: There’s no such grey area when it comes to French baguettes. Since 1993, the law has decreed that a baguette must be made entirely in house with only four ingredients: wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast. They may not be frozen at any point, and go stale within 24 hours.
- Vacation deregulation: As a result, securing fresh bread is a daily quest for most Parisians—which, combined with the repeal of a 225-year-old law, led to a bit of an uproar in 2015. To make sure that a sufficient number of bakeries remained open throughout the popular vacation months of July and August, bakers were required to report their summer breaks to the government. They also had to post warnings for their customers, and direct them to alternate sources for their daily bread. With the law repealed, too many bakers chose to vacation in August—and locals not only found their favorite boulangerie unexpectedly closed, but sometimes their second-favorite as well. Whether 2016 fares better remains to be seen.
- Savvy shopping: Wherever you shop in France, be on the lookout for three letters that spell quality: AOC. The Appellation d’Origine Controlee (Controlled Designation of Origin) label signifies that certain products—including wine, cheese, honey, and olive oil—are made according to tradition within a designated geographical area. If you can’t find AOC, look instead for POD (Protected Designation of Origin), which is a similar set of quality regulations that applies to the entire European Union.
- Ketchup, killer of culture: In 2011, France made international headlines by banning ketchup from school cafeterias—unless it accompanied (you guessed it) French fries, in small, controlled amounts. The ban was passed alongside measures to increase children’s fruit and vegetable intake—but kicking ketchup to the curb had nothing to do with promoting healthy habits … and everything to do with preserving France’s culinary heritage for future generations. Proponents believed that by slathering on too much of the condiment, children were preventing themselves from truly appreciating French recipes. (This makes us incredibly curious as to the quality of French cafeteria food.)
We recommend indulging only in straight croissants when you join Grand Circle on The Seine: Paris to Normandy.