LONDON — The croissant, the buttery breakfast pastry, means “crescent” in French. But don’t tell that to the British.
Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain and a bellwether of sorts for popular tastes, is dispensing with the traditional curved pastry as of Friday and instead will sell only straight ones.
The company offered a decidedly British rationale: It is easier to spread jam on the straight variety.
The banishing of the crescent-shaped croissant spurred no shortage of dismay on both sides of the English Channel.
“Is this a foretaste of Brexit?” an article in the French newspaper 20 Minutes asked, referring to the possibility that British voters might decide in a referendum to leave the European Union. The newspaper added that it appeared that Tesco’s move was not done “to antagonize the French (well, not solely).”
An editorial in The Daily Telegraph, a conservative British newspaper, noted that the virtue of the traditional French croissant was its foreignness. “They must not be sliced in two, like buns to be buttered,” it observed. “They must be torn, and each morsel eaten with jam, even alien apricot jam, if wanted.”
The editorial added: “Otherwise nature is outraged, floods will again sweep the land and murrains strike our cattle. Or we could just stick with toast.”
Justifying the move away from curved croissants, Tesco’s croissant buyer, Harry Jones, cited what he called the “spreadability factor.” He said that sales of crescent-shaped croissants had been falling.
“The majority of shoppers find it easier to spread jam, or their preferred filling, on a straighter shape with a single sweeping motion,” he said in a statement. “With the crescent-shaped croissants, it’s more fiddly, and most people can take up to three attempts to achieve perfect coverage, which increases the potential for accidents involving sticky fingers and tables.”
But in a week when Prime Minister David Cameron was in Brussels trying to wring concessions from fellow European Union leaders over Britain’s future in the 28-member bloc, The Times of London called the timing of the “major culinary snub” to the quintessentially French pastry “indelicate to say the least.”
Still, for all the fuss about breaching French tradition, Benjamin Turquier, who beat 149 other contestants last year and was voted the best butter-croissant maker in Paris and the surrounding Île-de-France region by the Paris-based association of professional bakers, said he baked only straight croissants because they were easier to roll and fit neatly in a baking tray.
“I can understand the importance of symbolism and tradition, but straight croissants are more practical to make,” Turquier said by telephone from Paris.
While the croissant is associated with France, the pastry originated in what is now Austria, as a crescent-shaped roll called a kipferl.
Origin myths abound; one account is that Viennese bakers, drawing on an Ottoman emblem, came up with the crescent-shaped roll to celebrate the defeat of Turkish forces that ended their siege of Vienna in 1683. But some food historians say the kipferl appeared in Vienna as early as the 13th century.
According to Heather Arndt Anderson’s “Breakfast: A History,” the croissant was introduced to France in the late 1830s, when an Austrian artillery officer named August Zang founded a bakery, Boulangerie Viennoise, that sold kipferl. The rolls caught on, and the croissant was born, along with a name befitting its distinctive shape.
Some observers took to Twitter to express their disbelief that British jam-spreaders were unable to navigate a traditional croissant’s curved edges. “Utterly preposterous. Croissants are curved traditionally. Must be another EU directive!” wrote Timothy William of Belfast. Others mocked what they saw as a marketing tactic by the retail chain.