There is a little deli in Jorbagh, which sells the best croissants outside of most five-star hotels. These little crescents of leavened dough in plastic pouches are a little bag of joy. So good to taste that they don’t even need to be popped into the oven or micro wave for a whirl and are just as tasty cold. Croissants are tough to make. I recall during my training in the bakery section, only the most competent chef was assigned the task of making croissants. One could help out with measuring the dough, etc., but it was his hands that kneaded in the butter, layer by layer, and shaped the dough into those delectably familiar shapes. One memorable story about croissants is was when a chef at the Oberoi told me about Rai Bahadur Oberoi — the grand old man of Indian hospitality. Well into his nineties, the distinguished patriarch of the Oberoi Group — a hotelier by instinct and passion, not training — had retired from active work but was keenly observant of the running of his hotels. One morning, this young bakery chef sent an order of croissants to Oberoi’s room.
Fresh from the oven in the early hours of the day, before the hotel stirred awake, he placed them gently in the little wicker basket and wished them well. As they made their way up to Oberoi’s plate, the chef waited with bated breath. Would there be a response? A complaint? There was nothing, and assuming no news to be good news or indifference, he went back to his duties, only to turn around to find the grand old man standing in front of him. “These were the best croissants I have ever eaten,” the legendary hotelier said, turned around and walked back to his room.
The chef said there has never been a better compliment. The croissant, in many ways, is thought to be a baker’s test. I heard this story about almost 15 years after the incident took place, but the delight on the chef’s face and the excitement in his voice uplifted the story and breathed freshness into it. The simple croissant that elicited such genuine appreciation, especially from a man who had laboured to create and take Indian hospitality standards on par with the best in the world, made this chef a loyalist for many years. But, it also emphasised that food may have a provenance, but its preparation doesn’t.
First things first, the croissant isn’t French, its Austrian, although in the present day, the French own it. And as far as culinary legends go, the croissant has its own little story set against the backdrop of the Battle of Tours. It is believed to have been created to celebrate the victory of the Franks over the Ummayd forces, hence the crescent shape. Other stories credit its creation to the crushing of the Ottomans in Vienna by the Christian forces. So, a clash of civilisations found culinary expression. These stories find legitimacy in the Larousse Gastronomique (1938, first edition). The croissant, of course, resides in more amicable circumstances today. It has travelled the world and has many variants from Argentina to Poland.
Its traditional recipe has been tweaked, and one of its familiar variants — the chocolate croissant — has a swag and an identity of its own. It also scaled the chic breakfast charts, when a supermodel (as I recollect) once said, all she needed was a croissant and orange juice to get through the day. She may have been French or American. But today, the croissant is staple on all breakfast buffets, the king of breakfast breads; it comes in all shapes and sizes. And despite the complexity of its making and the deft process of lamination that ensures its quality, even the government-run Ashoka Hotel in the national capital serves up a good, albeit pint size, version.