Why France is finding vegan croissants hard to stomach

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In the heart of Paris, a quiet revolution is unfolding in the world of French pastries. Amidst the rows of flaky, golden croissants, a new breed of butter-free creations has emerged, challenging centuries-old culinary traditions and sparking a debate that goes far beyond the realm of baking.

At the center of this storm is Rodolphe Landemaine, a vegan baker who has built a thriving empire of five Parisian bakeries, all serving dairy-free pastries to a growing clientele. His croissants, madeleines, and pain au chocolat may look and taste like the real thing, but they are the result of a carefully crafted blend of plant-based ingredients, a far cry from the rich, buttery indulgence that has long defined French baking.

“I’m changing the world,” Landemaine says with a grin, as he savors one of his signature butter-free creations. His approach is stealthy, eschewing the term “vegan” in favor of a more subtle appeal to his customers’ taste buds. The goal is to win them over before they realize that the traditional dairy products have been replaced.

This strategy seems to be working. Customers, both local and visiting, are often surprised by the lightness and quality of Landemaine’s pastries, with many struggling to detect the absence of butter. “It tastes lighter,” says Anne, a 42-year-old musician, as she nibbles on a croissant. Marta, a visitor from Poland, is equally impressed with her pain au chocolat, noting that she often faces judgment from French waiters for requesting non-dairy milk alternatives.

However, Landemaine’s approach is not without its critics. Thierry Loussakoueno, a Parisian civil servant, is appalled by the very idea of a butter-free croissant, declaring, “Not for me, no way.” Loussakoueno was among the judges at a traditional croissant competition, where the importance of butter and dairy products in French culinary heritage was fiercely defended.

The issue of Landemaine’s dairy-free pastries touches on deeper tensions within French society, from the country’s relationship with its agricultural roots to the ongoing debates around climate change and the future of food production. Small farmers, like Sophie Lenaerts, who runs a dairy farm near Amiens, see Landemaine’s creations as a symbol of the “industrial madness” that threatens their livelihoods and the very fabric of French identity.

Lenaerts, who has been actively organizing protests against the European Union’s agricultural policies, argues that the fear of losing French agriculture is the fear of losing the country’s heritage and landscape. “It’s the farmers that maintain our landscape and make France a country for tourism,” she says, warning that a future without cows and farmers would be “much worse.”

Yet, there are also signs of change, as a new generation of chefs and restaurateurs, like Manon Fleury of the Michelin-starred Datil, are challenging the traditional French culinary landscape. Fleury’s focus on “mostly vegan, poetic” recipes is part of a broader movement to nudge French food culture in a more plant-based direction, even if the road ahead remains steep.

“The French tradition is quite heavy,” Fleury acknowledges, but she believes that sometimes, “you have to be radical to change the world.” And with a growing interest in this kind of cuisine, and the rising cost of butter, the market may be shifting in Landemaine’s favor, even if the transition is slow.

As the morning rush at Landemaine’s bakery winds down, the owner reflects on the challenges and opportunities ahead. “It’s changing,” he says, “but not so quickly.” Yet, the presence of that lone, butter-free croissant, waiting patiently behind the glass, serves as a testament to the quiet revolution unfolding in the heart of Paris.

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