Whether it’s in the crisp flaking of an early morning croissant, the aromatic puff of steam wafting from a lunchtime sausage roll, or the delicate curl on the crust of a sneaky dessert apple pie, there’s surely something wonderful about pastries at any time of day. We hit up London to sample the very best pastries we could find, and the fair city did not fail to deliver.
But watch out: all pastries are not made equal, and the unaware pastry shopper might find themselves with a stale or sour mouthful of disappointment. Here’s our go-to guide to buying good London pastries.
Freshness is Quality (and can be found more cheaply than you think)
When you buy pastries in London, it’s easy to assume that luxury patisseries piled with treats and bon bons will be the source of the best morsels. This can be true, but is not always the case. Before re-mortgaging your house for a few luxury bites, try your most popular local supermarket first thing in the morning. Supermarkets will often bake on-site, and their high turnover serving eat-and-run commuters means that a pain au chocolat or croissant may have been baked only an hour previously.
If you do try that boutique bakery, aim for places with queues that sell out around lunchtime. Fresh and sold out today means it is far less likely to be stale and on sale tomorrow. Look out for grease spots below the pastry; this usually means the item has been sitting out for some time.
The French are still King
Many good pastries in London hale from French origins. Pastries are a way of life in France, and some of the best have found their way over the Channel. Look out for regional specialities, such as canelés from Bordeaux (small fluted rum and vanilla confectioneries served as breakfast or dessert). Or try a pain aux raisins, sometimes known as an escargot for its spiralised, snail-like appearance. Like the croissant or pain au chocolat, this is made from leavened butter pastry, swirled with crème pâtissière, and studded with raisins (we like to tell ourselves this almost makes it the ‘health food’ of French pastries! Raisins are fruit, after all). Perfect pastries are crisp on the outside and warm, airy and light within, like a day in early Autumn.
France also has the benefit of having absorbed other cultural influences, such as the delicious flavours of Moroccan and Armenian cuisine, featuring rosewater, almonds, and other delicate and fragrant scents and tastes, so look out for these cultural mash-ups when you want to buy pastries in London.
The quality of butter used can make or break a pastry, and in London where butter can be sourced from all manner of dairies and farms, this is the number-one defining factor in pastry quality.
The water and fat content of the butter will affect the colour and consistency of a pastry, so look for good butter and good colour (not too brown, not too pale — we’re aiming for beautifully golden here). And don’t even go near flaky pastries listing palm oil or canola oil as a primary ingredient — it’s not worth it.
Organic, grass-fed butter, properly stored, will be more likely to create a delicious pastry.
British pastries such as pies, Cornish pasties, and sausage rolls don’t have to be stodgy nightmares: a good British pastry can be a delicate, deeply satisfying affair, and have its own life form. Look for establishments that have been around for a while and that have a good reputation for classic British pastries, or for owners/bakers who hail from a region famous for pasties, such as Cornwall.
Think Outside the Geographical Pastry Box
When you go to buy pastries in London, don’t limit yourself to English and French pastries. Look at Middle Eastern and Turkish places, where there are a wide range of beautiful, exotic, and delicious delicacies available. Common middle eastern ingredients include dates, almonds, rosewater, figs, pomegranate, and pistachios. Börek (savoury Turkish pastries) and baklava are beautiful when fresh.
If the pastry you’re looking at is glazed with icing, covered in cheese, sprinkled with multi-coloured confetti, or wrapped in bacon, it is usually to keep the pastry longer and disguise a lack of freshness. Any place selling good London pastries should know better.
Be wary also of refrigerated pastries, as this can make the oil or butter content of an otherwise delicious mouthful harden and congeal. Flaky pastry is not designed to be chilled in this way, and the mouth-congealing effect of cold pastries is not a pleasant sensation.
Be careful also of cafés in museums or galleries: often these places have extremely inflated prices. You don’t want to be paying 12 pounds for a chewy, day-old croissant… right?
Are you Filo-ing it?
A perfect almond croissant is a wonderful thing, but don’t write off other less common forms of pastries, such as delicious creations made of filo, or the retro appeal of puff pastry morsels. Pre-rolled, frozen pastry (again, don’t forget to go for quality butter content), is a great way to experiment with pastry creations at home. Again, Turkish and Middle-Eastern places have a way with filo pastry, often pairing it with sticky honey syrups and delicate flavours.
At the end of the day, there’s only one reliable way to research the best pastries in London: using your tastebuds. Immerse yourself in the incredible range of flavours and options available, slow down, and taste every bite. Savour the moment, and really explore the full character of the pastry. Is it fresh? Meltingly delicate? Subtly rich? Indulgently sweet? If the answer is yes, you might just have found your new favourite pastry shop!