Bee Wilson on the intrusion of the American muffin

The Continental love affair with the American muffin is quite puzzling

Almost the most exciting bit of travelling abroad is that moment, before the holiday properly starts, when you arrive at the airport or train station, where even a mundane snack stall can seem glamorous. I love those Italian airport cafes, smelling of the crema on top of an espresso, that serve you Campari-soda in little bottles and long toasted sandwiches. But arriving at Milan airport a few weeks ago, something was wrong. Alongside the rows of Nutella dips and strange liqueurs was something more familiar: heaps of plasticky and dry-looking American muffins, in choc-chip and blueberry flavours. Suddenly, this seemed less like an escape than a homecoming.

It is one thing for the British to be besotted with American muffins - we don't know any better - but it's depressing when the Italians start falling for them, too. The bakeries of northern Italy are now sprinkled with muffins, and the bookshops with cookbooks telling you how to make American breakfast. Paris is smitten with the same muffin-mania; various outlets sell nothing but these sugared cupcakes. In Amsterdam, home of nutmeggy waffles and apple pie, the muffin is also making inroads. You can sit on the terrace of "Gary's Muffins", overlooking the Prinsengracht canal, and enjoy a giant-sized "muffin du jour", a different flavour for every day of the week.

What makes this Continental love affair with the muffin rather puzzling is that there are so many other sweet pastries to eat for breakfast if you are Italian or French or Dutch: lovely cornetti, filled with custard; or plain or sweet buns such as maritozzi, studded with raisins and orange peel; brioches and croissants in all their permutations; or the brown sugar coils and buttery wafers of the Netherlands (as celebrated in a new book, Windmills in My Oven by Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra (Prospect Books, £14.99). All of these baked breakfast things are, in their own way, the perfect foil for strong coffee.

But none of them has the light, cakey quality of a muffin, and perhaps it is this, as much as a prevailing Americanisation of everything, that explains their growing success. The American muffin celebrates the potency of chemical leavening agents and sugar. Its success depends on greedy amounts of raising agent, perfunctory mixing, very little egg but plenty of sugar and fat: the opposite of the slow, patient endeavour of the European yeast-baking tradition.

Even the Americans discovered their version of the muffin relatively recently. When Thomas Jefferson, the third American president, ate a muffin at his estate in Monticello, what he would have consumed was a flattened, yeasted bread roll, buttered and perhaps sprinkled with a little salt, from a muffineer. In the early 19th century, American baking was still dominated by the eggy and yeasted influence of the Pennsylvania Dutch. In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820), Washington Irving writes of "the doughty doughnut, the tender olyoek and the crisp and crumbling cruller". Lighter cakes appeared only after the discovery of baking powder in the 1850s. The American muffin established itself in the course of the 20th century; and the old muffin was now called "English".

Well-made muffins can be very agreeable: the spicy pumpkin muffins of California, or inky blueberry muffins with crunchy demerara on top. But at their mass-produced worst, muffins have a horrible, chemical-ish aftertaste. And even good muffins don't keep well, unlike the fine plain morning cakes of the British kitchen. Fergus Henderson, head chef at St John restaurant in London, told me that he stops work each morning at 11 for a glass of madeira and a slice of seed cake. It is, I fear, a habit too gentlemanly for these times.