Pretty much every time a friend arrives in Paris, the first thing he or she wants to do – before going to the Louvre, before seeing the Eiffel Tower, and, in the case of my brother, before he’s even dropped his bag off at the apartment –, is eat a croissant.
And I totally get it. While I have to admit that my croissant consumption is fairly rare these days, mainly because I don’t want to continue to have to buy larger pants, when I get my hands on one of my favorite viennoiseries in the city, I just can’t say no.
But what is a viennoiserie? Well, glad you asked.
In France, there are basically three categories of baked goods (four, now, if you count the sudden influx of pâtisseries américaines like les cookies, les muffins, and les brownies): bread (boulangerie), pastry (pâtisserie), and the in-between category known as la viennoiserie.
Viennoiserie, which means “Vienna pastry,” is so named because of the introduction of the most famous of viennoiseries, the croissant, to France by the Viennese. Naturally, the French took it and made it their own, and the French croissant today bears little to no resemblance to the kipferl of Austria, save that they are both shaped like crescent moons.
Other viennoiseries that fall into the category include pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins, and one of my favorite viennoiseries in Paris, the escargot.
The escargot is a viennoiserie made of laminated dough, and my favorite hails from Du Pain et des Idées, which is coincidentally also home to one of my favorite breads in Paris.
The escargot is reminiscent of a pain aux raisins, but although the shop does offer a rum-raisin flavor, this isn’t the only filling you can opt for. Nougat, chestnut, berry-cream cheese, and pistachio-chocolate are all on offer… and the fact that I can have an escargot without having to eat raisins (one of only three food items I cannot tolerate) is not the only reason I love it.
The reason that this is one of my favorite viennoiseries in the city has to do with the dough itself: richly buttery and perfectly cooked, with a crisp, caramelized exterior and perfectly tender interior, this is the way all viennoiseries should taste.
Another one of my all-time fave Parisian viennoiseries is the croissant Ispahan from macaron-master Pierre Hermé. I stumbled upon this viennoiserie at the Fou de Pâtisserie pastry shop on rue Montorgueil, which unites different top pastries from pâtissiers all across the city, but you can also get it at any one of M. Hermés eponymous shops throughout Paris.
The croissant is flavored with Ispahan, a combination of rose, raspberry, and litchi. The result is slightly exotic in flavor with just the right amount of light acidity that immediately captivates me, as someone who’s not into overly sweet pastries. Of course, since Hermé is also a champion croissant-maker, the entire viennoiserie is worth the extra effort it takes to seek it out.
My “not too sweet” rule goes straight out the window when it comes to one of my longtime favorites, the chocolate-almond croissant from Jean Millet.
I’m not a huge fan of the pain au chocolat (or of chocolate in general), but I’ve been eating this ultra-sweet, super-decadent viennoiserie since I went to college – conveniently – on the same street on which the pastry shop is located, so I’m not gonna stop now.
The pain au chocolat et aux amandes is super rich and buttery, with a lovely crispy layer of slivered almonds over the top. Best when shared with two equally gourmand friends – or followed by a long nap.
Which brings us, of course, to the last item on this list, but certainly not the least… that croissant up top: the definition of perfection. This item comes straight from the pastry shop of Cyril Lignac (with whom I once got drunk in a snowstorm, but that’s another story). The croissant itself is pretty much just butter held together with the slightest amount of flour. If you manage to get to the pastry shop when these croissants are hot, they’ll change your life.
Du Pain et Des Idées – 34, rue Yves Toudic, 75010
Pierre Hermé – 72, rue Bonaparte, 75006
Jean Millet (Aoki chez Millet) – 103, rue Saint Dominique, 75007
La Pâtisserie Cyril Lignac – 24, rue Paul Bert, 75011