PARIS—A looming butter shortage has pushed prices up to exorbitant levels, and one baking industry group is warning of “a major crisis” that could imperil the very existence of the croissant as we know it—or at least as we ought to know it.
A “major crisis” over a crescent roll? Oh, yes.
A true French croissant is an entirely different beast from the mass-produced, flabby incarnation that populates grocery store pastry aisles. The crust is golden-brown and delicately flaky. A single bite will send flakes fluttering into your lap or sticking to your fingers, so perhaps not the most elegant choice if on a date, but, ah, the taste sensation. The multi-layered interior is light and tender with an intense, buttery flavor—and for a good reason. Butter is crucial to creating a French croissant. Lots of butter.
“A croissant is composed of 25 percent butter,” Armelle Favre, a spokesperson for the industry group Federation des Entrepreneurs de la Boulangerie (FEB), explained to The Daily Beast. “And butter,” she added, “accounts for half of a croissant’s costs.”
A lack of this essential ingredient could therefore spell doom for the pastry that is an integral part of much of the country’s morning routine—croissant and coffee for breakfast, anyone?
“We have gone from paying €2,500 ($2,798) per ton [of butter] to paying €5,300 ($5,930) between April of last year and June,” Matthieu Labbé, an FEB representative, told Agence France Press earlier this week.
Labbé said that the butter shortage could mean that customers will be shelling out more for their beloved baked good. And this is apparently the best-case scenario.
“Our concern is also not being able to get butter in the coming months, and that production lines will stop,” Labbé said.
And it gets worse. Croissants are not the only famous French treat under threat. The dearth of butter could also impact other goodies like the pain au chocolat (a square, croissant-like pastry with thin slabs of chocolate inside) and the brioche, as well as butter-heavy cakes and cookies.
Fabien Castanier, the general secretary of the Fabricants de Biscuits et Gâteaux de France, said in a news release that rocketing butter prices are costing professional cookie and cake makers an extra €68 million annually, resulting in “unsustainable economic pressure” on the industry.
“Unfortunately, the situation is going to worsen in the coming weeks with a strong risk of butter running out,” he said, echoing Labbé’s remarks.
Indeed, Castanier told The Daily Beast that certain specialty butters may be hard to come by as early as this summer.
So what is behind this potential cake and pastry paucity?
The butter price hike is being blamed on a larger, countrywide dairy crisis, namely a shortage of milk supplies in France. In recent years, French dairy farmers have complained that production costs have outpaced earnings.
“They [dairy farmers] have been facing a crisis for the past 30 months and the price they get for milk does not cover their production costs,” Christiane Lambert, president of the French farmers’ union FNSEA told Radio France International. Indeed, on Tuesday, protesting milk farmers vented their frustration by dumping cow manure outside of dairy processing facilities in western France.
A rising milk demand in international markets, especially Asia, is also fueling the dairy shortage. Moreover, the milk that is available is being used for cheese and cream, not butter.
As I reported this story, the alarming possibility of croissant collateral damages in the country’s ongoing dairy deadlock was making me slightly anxious. The butter-laden carb bomb is the ultimate comfort food on a dreary day. And unlike the hamburger, which has become a recent item on French menus, the croissant has endured for at least two centuries.
Although its origins in France are shadowy (legend has it that the croissant actually originated in Austria and that Marie Antoinette introduced it to the French court in the 1770s), today it is ubiquitous, appearing in French bakeries and chain supermarkets nationwide. According to the French daily, Le Monde, a Rennes-based factory for the bread company Bridor produces nearly 500,000 of them each day. Run a Google image search for “French breakfast” and the croissant features prominently in nearly every picture.
No more croissants? Is it really possible? Could upcoming price hikes return the flaky delicacy to its storied royal origins, making it so costly that only those with Marie-Antoinette-style affluence can afford to indulge? Should I stock up now and freeze a bunch of them for future rainy days?
I decided to head over to my local boulangerie, to find out how business was faring and whether my favorite French pastry, the pain au chocolat, cost €100 yet.
“There has definitely been a lot of talk about this, but I am not worried,” Boris Lumé, the owner of the quaint, postage stamp-sized bakery said. “There was a similar butter price increase a few years back.”
Lumé explained that his bakery deals directly with small, regional butter producers, rather than going through intermediaries the way a large-scale baking corporation would. Dealing one-on-one with small producers keeps costs relatively stable. And because his pastries sell for higher than average prices to begin with, the they won’t increase further. A croissant at Boris’ costs €1.10, while the average price, according to Lumé, is around €.90.
However, across town artisan baker Jérôme Blouet said he was feeling the pinch of rising butter costs.
Blouet said that if butter prices were to continue to rise, a price increase was possible, but that it wouldn’t apply to croissants (which cost €1.05 at Blouet’s boulangerie), pains au chocolat, and other sought-after viennoiseries. Apparently, customers keep a close eye on croissant costs and may even swap bakeries if prices rise too drastically.
Favre and other baking insiders believe that one way to avoid a potential croissant crisis is to convince dairy producers to make more butter. The FEB is also calling on large distributors to pay more for croissants and other baked treats to avoid any production line stoppages. Higher prices for distributors could also mean slightly higher prices at boulangeries, but the magic crescents would live on.
At least, that is what I told myself as I left Lumé’s bakery with a neatly-wrapped pain au chocolat tucked into my bag.