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How to spot mass-produced pastries in a French bakery

Not all croissants are made equal - with the help of a ‘pâtissologist’ we reveal the tell-tale signs of an industrial pâtisserie

Marion Thillou developed the concept of ‘pâtissology’, the art of tasting pastries using all five senses, inspired by oenology (the study of wine) Pic: 18th Studio/ Shutterstock / David Japy

One of the first things most people do when they come to France is head to the local boulangerie-pâtisserie and indulge in some of the sweet treats they offer.

Whether it is a croissant you fancy or a tarte au citron, you might be disappointed to learn that it was not made on-site.

Buy and bake pastries from frozen

Marion Thillou, founder of Honoré Vous Guide, which offers in-person dessert-based Paris food tours and an app for self-guided tours, said: “While France is the land of pâtisserie, the industry in this domaine is well developed, and it is not easy for consumers to navigate, myself included.”

Industrial pastries are particularly difficult to identify, as it is common for bakeries to order boxes of frozen pastries, which they then bake. 

Some estimate that up to 80% of croissants and pains au chocolat sold in boulangeries are industrial.

“They are more basic, easy to freeze, and freezing is part of the process even for an artisan, as it is a way of organising their time,” said Ms Thillou.

Read more: Patissiers watch out? Normandy start-up creates 3D-printed patisserie

Stricter rules for bread than pastries

For a business to display the name ‘boulangerie’, the bread must be made on-site, not simply cooked from frozen, but that rule does not extend to pastries.

To help clients make the distinction, the Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française has created a label, Boulanger de France, for bakeries that commit to making their own bread, main viennoiseries (croissants, pains au chocolat, brioche, etc), and main pâtisseries (such as éclairs, millefeuilles, fruit tarts).

Approximately 1,000 boulangeries have signed up so far, of around 35,000 in France, and they can be identified by a Boulanger de France window sticker. 

They have to pay to join, so not all artisanal bakeries have applied for the label.

Would you pay more than €2 for a croissant?

Ms Thillou said many bakeries resort to industrial pastries as making them is a labour-intensive process that is not necessarily rewarded as it should be.

“If we don’t want to spend more than €1 on a croissant, it’s difficult to have an artisanal product. It wouldn’t shock me to pay more than €2, with the increases to the price of ingredients and electricity.”

That said, you will not necessarily be charged more for an artisanal pastry.

Read more: Young French pastry chef says ‘love’ is key to perfect croissant

How to tell if a croissant is good

When it comes to trying a croissant, Ms Thillou begins by using her eyes. 

“It should have risen well, and be golden and glistening. We should be able to see the different layers, and if the shape is irregular it’s usually a good sign. 

“When you cut into it, there should be large air pockets. The scent is also very important. It will always smell good fresh out of the oven, but if it still smells of butter and hazelnut when cold, that’s a good sign.

“The crust should be fine and crispy on top but not dry. When you cut it, the inside should be soft, with a bit of butter that escapes, but not too much. And you should be able to taste the butter.”

Even professional chefs can struggle to identify certain industrial croissants in taste tests. “I think industrial croissants can be good, but not exceptional,” Ms Thillou said.

“It is also about the type of chocolate. An industrial pain au chocolat might use 45%, which is mainly sugar, but an artisan might use 55%, which has a real chocolatey taste.”

The only way to be certain, she said, is to observe and speak with the baker.

Anybody can call their business a ‘pâtisserie’

It is, however, safe to say that if you buy a croissant from certain chains, such as Brioche Dorée or La Mie Câline, there is little chance it was made on-site. 

These are referred to as points chauds or terminaux de cuisson, meaning products are delivered frozen and then baked in-store.

Meanwhile, anybody can call their business a ‘pâtisserie’. 

Laurent Le Daniel, president of the Confédération Nationale des Artisans Pâtissiers, said: “I find it a shame that when you speak to customers, unless they know their pâtissier well, they can’t tell if a product is home-made.”

He suggests creating a separate category of business for artisans who make their own desserts to distinguish them from ‘shopkeepers’, who simply resell products.

“I wouldn’t even think of buying a cake ready-made. I’d feel like I was deceiving my clients,” he said.

“There might be some on the margins who, for staffing or health reasons, sometimes replace a product that they previously made. But we must also distinguish between an out-and-out pâtissier and boulangeries-pâtisseries – I would be less categorical in saying you will not find ready-made products there. 

“Boulanger is a real and distinct trade. Some people want to do everything and realise it’s not easy. Although others are able to make it work.”

Tips to assess a pâtisserie

Ms Thillou developed the concept of ‘patissology’ – the art of tasting pastries and cakes using all five senses – inspired by oenology (the study of wine). She also has tips before you get to the tasting stage.

“When I enter a pâtisserie, the first thing I look at is how large the assortment is.

“If a restaurant does crêpes, pizza and sushi, it would put you off as it’s unlikely to all be home-made. 

“Pâtisseries are the same – if there are 30 different types of dessert in every colour, it’s a first clue that it’s not all freshly made.

“The second thing is the seasons. If I see they are using strawberries in January, I’ll go somewhere else.

“The final trick is to come at the end of the day, 30 minutes before closing, to see 

if they still have their entire range in the window. If they are made fresh, there might not be anything left, or just two or three products.”

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