Last year, I wrote about going to a café in my hometown and not knowing what you call a pain au chocolat in English.
This time, thankfully, I remembered.
To review: a pain au chocolat is (most often) composed of two sticks of chocolate inside a flaky croissant-style wrapping. In France, they’re sold everywhere there’s a boulangerie/pâtisserie, which is pretty much everywhere. They usually cost between 1€ and 1,10€ (sometimes slightly more).
There’s a bookstore/Champagne bar in a historic arcade downtown. On Thursday afternoons, a discussion group meets there to chat in French for an hour. My grandmother, a native French speaker herself, was until recently a regular attendee of the group; the others include people who have lived/worked in France and in French-speaking countries (one lady was a lectrice at a university in the Auvergne region, but just how long ago she wouldn’t say, being herself une dame d’un certain âge).
This Thursday, I decided to go. Not having any cash, I looked through the menu before ordering, trying to find something that would fall above the card minimum. I considered buying a slice of cake, a couple of cookies, or one of several other pastries, all of which would have done the trick. But when I saw it, I knew I had to have it.
“You know what?” I told the barista. “I’ll have the chocolate croissant.”
It cost $4.25.
The barista was nice enough to heat it up for me.
The following day, I asked my Facebook friends to guess how much it had cost. Everyone guessed too high, except for a friend of mine from Limoges, who guessed too low. But despite having had some fun on the Internet, I still feel disappointed. The croissant part seemed too heavy—too thick and rich, almost—ironic, considering the amount of butter that usually goes into those things. Definitely not worth paying four times the usual price. As one of my conversation partners joked, were it any more expensive, if you flew to France, bought and ate a real pain au chocolat, and flew back, you’d probably save money.
I’m starting to approach New-World pains au chocolat like a Frenchman or woman would American wine, unable to hide my disdain for a well-meaning but ultimately inferior imitation. C’est bon. . . . pour les américains. Ouais, ouais. . . .
Strangely, though, the pain au chocolat is not merely a symbol of French snobbery (and one former language assistant’s nostalgia). It is also a vehicle for embarrassment—a catalyst of public ridicule aimed at France’s elected officials, candidates, and their advisors. During the most recent presidential campaign, I remember hearing of one candidate who underestimated the price of a pain au chocolat and was rightfully mocked for it.
The specific incident in question involved Jean-François Copé, who, when asked by a radio host last October what the price was of a pain au chocolat, replied, “It depends on the size. . . . I think it’s probably in the range of 10 or 15 cents, maybe.”¹
But there’s yet another case in which a pain au chocolat resulted in widespread criticism of a French public official: after receiving death threats, an advisor to former president François Hollande was put under the protection of a security detail. In July of 2013, the advisor scolded his escort for not doing what he’d asked, saying, “Nobody told you that you’re supposed to buy me a pain au chocolat in the morning?”
It was no less than Charlie Hebdo that broke the story, quoting a police union representative, who said that “the agents of the SPHP [Service de protection des hautes personnalités, apparently France’s version of the Secret Service] are disciplined officers whose duties do not involve running errands to the bakery.”²
It may be an innocent little pastry, but if you’re thinking about running for public office in France, beware—this innocent little pastry may very well become a flaky, chocolatey pain in your neck.
¹ “10 centimes le pain au chocolat: Copé déconnecté de son totem politique,” Le Nouvel Observateur, October 24, 2016.
² “TROP GOURMAND: Le pain au chocolat du conseiller de Hollande qui ne passe pas,” Big Browser, Le Monde, November 1, 2013.