The French responded with regulations. Laws passed in 1993 and 1998 defined the “tradition baguette” and defined the advertising rules for the display of bakeries. 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 only industrial croissants, pain au chocolat and a dozen other types of egg-washed treats.
That means many visitors who want to indulge in the traditional Parisian viennoiserie, the catch-all term for leavened pastries often cut with butter and sugar, are being duped.
The vision that many foreigners have of a flour-dusted baker rolling up triangles of dough in butter no longer corresponds to reality in thousands of French bakeries. The majority of pastries sold in France today are made by large companies and then shipped — 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% of the market, a figure that French television channel BFM published in a 2020 article. Chefs and bakers like Thierry Marx and Dominique Anract, the president of another bakery and pastry confederation, Boulanger de France, contest this figure. Marx puts it at 70%.
Low profit margins for bakeries are a major reason for the boom in industrial products, Marx says. “We are in the penny world,” he said. “The industry capitalized on that and took the baking world by storm.”
In recent years, the costs of a baker have steadily increased, from the price of butter to rent and labor. However, the prices of pastries and bread did not increase in parallel. Although there is no ceiling set by law, bakers say they are reluctant to raise their prices for fear of losing customers who have expectations about the price of a croissant or a baguette.
Last year, the French daily Le Parisien reported that an industrial company was offering croissants at 0.23 euros each. For Clément Buisson, the owner of La Pompadour, a bakery in the 16th arrondissement of Paris that makes everything from A to Z, it’s about two-thirds less than what it costs him to make a croissant. Still, he sees value in his approach and believes traditional baking means something to his customers. “People know exactly what they’re getting when they walk into our store,” he says.
Large bakery chains such as Paul, La Mie Câline or Brioche Dorée, all ubiquitous in train stations, airports and near tourist attractions, fuel the misconception that industrial baked goods are the same as homemade. They entice customers with signs that read “pastries”, “pastries” and “sandwiches” and displays of glittering pastries. In fact, most, if not all, of their offerings are industrial and manufactured off-site, allowing them to cut costs and offer inexpensive products at much better margins than a real baker.
Another source of pressure is large supermarkets selling bread and pastries to consumers at up to 75% less than the average bakery. A quick search on the Internet reveals that the Carrefour supermarket chain sells croissants and other pastries for the modest sum of 0.29 euros. Compare that to the 1 to 1.20 euros that bakeries usually charge.
Didier Boudy directs the FEB, a professional group representative of the sector. He says that in terms of quality, there is good and bad in artisans as well as in industry. Overall, however, he feels the national standard is very high.
Authenticity is subjective – and potentially problematic – in nature. For many in France, industrial pastries taste very good (even if they might not admit it). But, if you want your breakfast or afternoon snack done the old-fashioned way, here are a number of tips to help you sort out the copycats.
If a bakery calls itself a bakery, it only guarantees that its bread is made on site. That said, if the bread is homemade, chances are the basic pastries will be too. If a store has “pastries” and “pastries” but no “bakery”, it often indicates that little, if anything, is being made from scratch. Look for the Boulanger de France logo. This certification, created by the French Bakery Confederation, guarantees that a bakery makes everything it sells – including pastries, quiches and sandwiches – on site.
Warning too much variety
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Chef Thierry Marx says: “If there are 45 products, beware, something is wrong. If you see dozens of pies, cakes, quiches, and pastries, the bakery is probably buying at least some products to save time and cut costs. The presence of certain elements signifies skill or care. For Marx, seeing good rye bread is a good sign. “It means that the baker is passionate because it is a very difficult bread to make.”
Look for irregular shapes
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According to Buisson, handmade pastries usually have noticeable irregularities, especially when it comes to decorative touches such as icing. If there are a few ugly croissants in the window, it’s a good sign! On the subject of croissants, Marx also notes that they often come out flat and straight when industrially produced, so look for crescent-shaped ones with a domed center.
The easiest way to secure an industrial breakfast is to visit any large chain bakery or grocery store. Instead, go to the nearest small bakery. The pastries will probably be better and the experience richer.
Above all, trust your senses. Are there mostly tourists queuing? How far is Montmartre or the Eiffel Tower? Does it smell sterile or alive with floating sourdough particles? For Marx, a good bakery will have an aroma of licorice and a hint of alcohol, like the smell of fermented grapes.