When it comes to eating, nearly every perfumer I’ve ever had the pleasure of dining with qualifies as a sensualist. Perfumers don’t just taste their food—they live in its aura and bask in the afterglow. If the saying “you are what you eat” is worth its weight, then it would stand to reason that what someone chooses to eat first thing in the morning says a lot about that person’s character. …
So what does a perfumer eat for breakfast? If you happen to be an acquaintance of perfumer Yann Vasnier, you already know the answer. Vasnier makes it his business to introduce his friends to the seductive qualities of a simple pastry from his native Brittany—Kouign Aman. Quest International perfumer and colleague Stephen Nilsen confessed that Vasnier has initiated nearly everyone he works with—as much to their pleasure as to the chiding voice of the inner diet critic that lives in all of us.
Translated from Breton to English, Kouign Aman means “cake with butter.” You will kiss your croissant goodbye upon discovering Kouign Aman. It is the pastry you’ve always wanted, but never knew you needed. It is the Alpha, the Omega, the fat bomb that says “so what, cheri, eat me anyway,” as you bite into thin, caramelized sugar topping and yield to temptation.
Kouign Aman’s Breton history goes back to baker Yves Rene-Scordia, who settled in Douarnenez and began selling the pastry in 1860. One group of very enthusiastic bakers, who are obsessed with its origins, formed an association to preserve “true Kouign Aman de Douarnenez.” When bakers get that intense about a pastry that is made with flour, sugar and salted butter, it begs the question; how can something so simple engender such dedication?
I asked Yann Vasnier to answer a few questions regarding Kouign Aman. I was secretly hoping that this native Breton would unravel its mystery so that my logical mind could gather the facts and rationalize a way to say “no” to this pastry, at least once. What Vasnier had to say, however, had no such effect:
Kydd: How old were you when you first tasted Kouign Aman?
Vasnier: I was probably inside my mother’s belly. It’s a really tempting pastry for a pregnant woman.
Kydd: Do you have any particular memories attached to Kouign Aman?
Vasnier: It is associated with special guests, like friends from foreign countries or with the city of Paris. It is not an everyday dessert at all; it is too rich, with too much butter and sugar. Like French fries at home (in Brittany), it is exceptionally good.
Kydd: What is the perfect accompaniment to Kouign Aman?
Vasnier: Hmm, I would say a low-fat plain yogurt would be the best, but actually a light crème anglaise or custard wouldn’t be bad either.
Kydd: If you had to explain Kouign Aman as you would a perfume, how would you describe it in terms of sensory qualities?
Vasnier: Sweet, bold, rich, buttery, caramel, crisp, fat and soothing.
Kydd: What is it about Kouign Aman that makes it so addictive?
Vasnier: When the ingredients are only butter, sugar and flour, and a lot of butter and sugar, it is difficult to go wrong.
Kydd: Which bakery in New York makes the best Kouign Aman?
Vasnier: Fauchon, actually. I’ve never seen it anywhere else, but maybe Chef Cyril Renaud* at Fleur de Sel on 20th Street would make a great one too.
Kydd: Which bakery in your native Brittany makes the best Kouign Aman?
Vasnier: I have no idea; it’s so common that any good baker knows how to make a good Kouign Aman. It’s like a baguette in any normal bakery.
Kydd: How is Kouign Aman different from a croissant, in terms of the eating experience?
Vasnier: A croissant is more common. Kouign Aman is more exceptional, but both (pastries) are waist terrors.
Waist terrors or not, Kouign Aman is worth the experience. If you are in New York City, visit Fauchon in the morning, as the Kouign Aman tends to sell out before noon. If there is only one Kouign Aman left in the pastry display, be prepared to turn on the charm and prove your at-counter finesse. You may even see Yann Vasnier vying for the same pastry, in which case the victor has already been determined.
*Chef Cyril Renaud is from Nantes, a historical captial of Brittany. His restaurant, Fleur de Sel, means “flower of the salt.” If you can make it to his Manhattan restaurant, try the Raspberry Feuilletè with white chocolate caramel ganache and fleur de sel.
Photo of Yann Vasnier from Quest International.