An estimated 12 million French people go to their boulangerie (bakery) every day.
But what do they buy there? Baguettes (in many different varieties) are still the top-seller – the French really do love and eat them as much as stereotypes seem to suggest. But among other boulangerie staples are viennoiseries — pastries like palmiers, pains au lait, and the iconic croissants and pains au chocolat.
Let’s take a mouthwatering look at viennoiseries, which hold a special place in everyday life in France – and are even the subject of an ongoing debate.
What’s a viennoiserie?
You might notice the word “Vienne,” the French name for the city “Vienna,” in the word viennoiserie. That’s because these pastries were thought to have originated in Austria. Although they were popular there, historical records show foods resembling croissants and other viennoiseries much earlier than that, in other European countries, as well as in the Middle East.
Many people say that Marie Antoinette, who was from Austria, is the person who popularized viennoiseries in France. That honor actually goes to a fellow Austrian with the cool name of August Zang, who opened his Café Viennoise on the rue de Richelieu in Paris in the late 1830’s, long after Marie-Antoinette had met her fate at the guillotine.
Viennoiseries have evolved over the years and are now staples of any true French boulangerie’s offerings.
What’s the difference between a viennoiserie and a pastry?
In most French boulangeries, you’ll probably notice that pastries (pâtisseries) and viennoiseries are kept in separate display sections. If you asked me to tell you what a viennoiserie is, I’d point to that area of the display case and say, “It’s any of those brownish-yellow pastries over there.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that.
Basically, it’s all about the ingredients. A viennoiserie is either made with puff pastry or a specific type of dough and yeast, or (as with brioche) is a richer version of a basic recipe. That’s why many of the best-known viennoiseries have a flaky, crunchy exterior, and an interior of soft, light, thin layers, while others are like soft, doughy bread.
The croissant is probably the best-known viennoiserie internationally, but there are many others, including regional variants, or even bold creations a particular boulangerie’s adventurous baker might try.
When do the French eat viennoiseries?
Viennoiseries are often eaten at breakfast here in France. But I’m going to shatter a myth: most French people don’t have the time (or energy) in the morning to go to the boulangerie in search of something fresh. Instead, they tend to rely on factory-made, prepackaged viennoiseries (viennoiseries industrielles). Some of these can be tasty, but they’re rarely, if ever, crunchy like the ones you’d get from an actual boulangerie.
In addition to breakfast fare, viennoiseries are also popular snacks for French children. My French mother-in-law, for example, delights in treating my son to a pain au chocolat (or, as she calls it, a chocolatine), every time she takes him out for the afternoon.
Although they tend to be popular in the daytime, you can usually buy viennoiseries at the bakery (and you can certainly buy prepackaged ones at the supermarket) until closing time. So if you’re hankering for a pavé suisse at 6pm, you’re in luck!
If you’re worried about making a faux pas by ordering a viennoiserie in the evening, it’s really not a problem. In fact, the boulanger or boulangère (baker -in French, you specify gender) will probably be glad someone bought one that was less fresh.
Some clever people might also buy viennoiseries in the evening to have them for breakfast the next morning. Most of them keep very well, especially if you leave them in the paper they usually come in. To make them last even longer, consider storing them in a plastic bag to conserve moisture.
A list of typical French viennoiseries
You can be sure that some viennoiseries will be sold in just about any bakery in France. Even if there’s only a small selection, you’ll most likely at least be able to buy a croissant or a pain au chocolat. And then, of course, each boulangerie can choose what it sells, so in addition to a choice of the essentials, there might be a specific treat that’s a house or regional specialty.
Here’s a list of the viennoiseries you’re most likely to find in a typical French boulangerie, along with a description of each one:
Similar to bread, but richer and usually sweet, brioche comes in many forms, from a roll, to a muffin-like shape, to a knotted loaf (looking a lot like its cousin, challah) of varying sizes. Brioches often have grains of sugar on top.
Although sweetness – or at least mildness – is the rule, the best brioche I’ve ever eaten is sold at the La Grande Épicerie, the food section of the Bon Marché department store. It’s a bit pricey (unsurprisingly for the location), but an amazing blend of sweet and slightly salty that makes the price tag totally worth it.
Mass-produced brioches are sold in a variety of formats, including briochettes (little round rolls), and a sliced loaf. Many French people add jam, Nutella, or other spreads to these slices.
Fun fact: Fittingly enough, avoir de la brioche can mean to have a bit of a belly, depending on the context! For example, I could say, J’ai de la brioche parce que je mange trop de brioche. (I have a pot-belly because I eat too much brioche.) On the other hand, if someone asked, Tu as faim? J’ai de la brioche, si tu veux, that simply means, “Are you hungry ? I have some brioche, if you want.”
le chausson aux pommes
Literally translating to “apple slipper”, this is an apple turnover: cooked apples, usually in a bit of syrupy melted sugar, inside a flaky pastry crust.
Pro tip: If you really want a viennoiserie but are trying to eat healthy, you can tell yourself that at least with this one, you get some fruit!
A little ball of choux pastry with large grains of sugar on top. Chouquettes look like donut holes but are in fact very light – almost hollow inside. They’re typically bought in multiples, rather than just a single one, although you can do that, too.
Fun fact: Chouquettes are especially popular with young children, and some boulanger(e)s will even give them one for free from time to time. This is as much a smart commercial gesture, as a kind one. Boulangeries are a part of life in cities and villages alike, and boulanger(e)s often become fond of the kids who come in. And, as this report confirms, most boulanger(e)s also prefer to be rid of their chouquettes within two hours of making them – after that, they get dry and hard.
A crescent-shaped pastry with a crusty, flaky outside, and a soft, thin, airy inside. There are several varieties of a croissant, including:
- Le croissant au beurre as its name suggests, this croissant, considered the classic one, is made with butter. As opposed to…
- le croissant ordinaire – This variety is made with margarine or a similar butter substitute. At the boulangerie I frequent, you’re often looked at with surprise if you order a croissant ordinaire. I once asked what the difference really was, and was told that this is the option for people who have to watch their weight or fat intake. It’s generally considered gastronomically inferior to the croissant au beurre, which is why it typically costs a little less. In terms of taste, it’s less rich than a croissant au beurre, but not horrible.
- Le croissant aux amandes — These croissants covered with shaved almonds and, often, powdered sugar, aren’t as common as the others on this list, but you can find them in a number of Parisian boulangeries, at least. If you like almonds and sweet pastries, I highly recommend them.
Fun facts: The croissant is associated with the French almost as much as baguettes. Surprisingly, though, it’s not the country’s most popular viennoiserie: in a recent survey, it was beaten by the pain au chocolat!
Also surprising: according to historians, croissants, which were brought to Paris by Austrian baker August Zang, used to taste similar to brioches. The flaky variety we know and cherish today probably only came about in the 20th century.
le pain au chocolat (also called a chocolatine)
Shaped like a blunt, lumpy rectangle, this viennoiserie is similar to a croissant: a somewhat crispy exterior (although often slightly softer than a croissant’s) and fluffy, light interior, filled with a piece of dark chocolate or, more commonly, (a) thick line(s) of chocolate paste.
Fun fact: According to the survey cited in the croissant section, this is currently the most popular viennoiserie in France.
le pain au lait
This soft, sweet bread is usually shaped like a small loaf, sometimes with decorative spikes on top. It’s a very popular snack for children.
le pain viennois (sometimes called la baguette viennoise, or simply viennois)
Its taste and very soft, sweet bread-like texture are similar to le pain au lait. Le pain viennois is usually shaped like a long baguette, making it easy to share or portion off for your family at breakfast time (or maybe you’ll just eat the whole thing yourself. Understandable).
There are two varieties you’ll find in most boulangeries:
- le viennois nature – plain.
- Le viennois au chocolat (sometimes called viennois aux pépites de chocolat) –riddled with delicious chocolate chips.
Fun fact: Depending on the boulangerie, un pain viennois can sometimes be an excellent bargain, since they’re usually sold pretty cheap and can last a while or be shared with several people.
le pain aux raisins
This spiral-shaped pastry is usually lightly drizzled or slightly filled with custard and covered in raisins.
Vocabulary musing: I often wonder why this treat isn’t called un pain aux raisins secs, since the word raisins alone means “grapes.” I think people were more concentrated on eating it than on making sure the name and the description perfectly matched!
le pavé suisse (also called a suisse, drops, pavé parisien, escargot, brioche suisse, and many other names)
This pastry is less well-known than most of the others on the list, but still fairly common, at least in Parisian boulangeries. In some other countries, the dough of a pavé suisse resembles that of a brioche, but the ones I’ve seen (and savored!) here are more like a croissant. The shape, however, is always the same. The word pavé means a slab or strip, and this viennoiserie is long and flat, stuffed with custard and chocolate chips. It’s very sweet and very filling. Even a sugar addict like me may have trouble finishing it on their own.
Versions of this pastry exist in many countries. In France, its name means “palm tree,” but it looks like a heart. Fairly large (a little bigger than the size of your palm) and flat, it’s made up of flaky layers of puff pastry covered in caramelized sugar. A sweet treat that is less filling than it looks!
The great viennoiserie debate: Pain au chocolat vs Chocolatine
A viennoiserie-related issue has been a cause of many arguments and articles, and inspired internet memes, Facebook pages, and hashtags. This is whether the name pain au chocolat or chocolatine is the “right” one.
France’s current favorite viennoiserie is known as le pain au chocolat in most of the country. But in the southwest (as well as abroad, in Quebec), it’s called la chocolatine.
As this adorable, funny, and informative video explains, the reasoning behind chocolatine is probably that, for many people from those regions, un pain au chocolat is literally “bread with chocolate” – a baguette with a plain chocolate bar inside. This is another popular snack in France, especially for children.
In a way, the inventors of the term chocolatine are quintessentially French, looking for clarity and concision in their vocabulary choices. But since this pastry is so tied to childhood and nostalgia, the rest of the country has no interest in this goal. To them, le pain au chocolat has been called that since that magical time they first tasted it, and they don’t want to even consider an alternative name.
And so, the debate rages on. It’s not an actual, violent issue, of course, just a sort of friendly inside joke among the French.
If you’re in France, should you say pain au chocolat or chocolatine? It seems like most French people understand both terms, but if you can, try to stick to what it’s called in the region you’re visiting.
That said, I often forget about the issue entirely, and when I step into the boulangerie where my in-laws live, near La Rochelle, I simply ask for un pain au chocolat. No one snickers or wants to fight or anything like that – the boulangère gives me my pastry and I’m on my way. And no, she doesn’t spit in it (I’d notice that, after all, since everything in a boulangerie is always in a display case out front, unless it’s just coming out of the oven).
To sum up, in general, pain au chocolat is the “official”, recognized term, and chocolatine is a regional variation. For now, anyway.
For French Together students, be warned: French Together’s own Benjamin Houy is very much on the pain au chocolat side, so if you prefer chocolatine, you may want to keep that to yourself. Just kidding…maybe.
Viennoiseries around the world
With origins in the Middle Ages, or even before, and the undeniable power of their deliciousness, it’s no surprise that varieties of viennoiseries can be found in many countries around the world. Have a look at the Wikipedia entry for “croissant” alone, and you’ll see that there’s a version of this pastry in places like China, Mexico, the United States (the cronut – too much?), and Italy, where it’s a breakfast essential.
Danish, puff pastries that are usually filled with fruit, jam, or some kind of cream, custard, or cheese, are also popular in various areas, and are considered viennoiseries, as are donuts (beignets in French, although they’re not nearly as well-known and widely consumed here).
What viennoiseries do people eat where you come from?
Whatever you call them, and whichever types are available where you live, viennoiseries are pretty delicious. Do you have a favorite one?