The flaky, buttery croissant is as French as a beret or a baguette, but its roots lie in a seventeenth century Austrian battle.
Croissant Origin Legend
The legend of the croissant traces this pastry’s ancestry back to the 1683 Battle of Vienna…
The city was under siege. It had been surrounded by thousands of Ottoman soldiers for two months. Supplies and morale were running low. Messengers had been sent to neighboring countries begging for help, but as yet, there had been no response. The weary Viennese were just about to run up the white flag of surrender when a messenger arrived. Good news: The King of Poland was coming with an army of allied forces. If the Viennese could hold out for just a few more days they would be saved.
Bakers Sound the Alarm
Meanwhile, outside the city, the Ottoman army had a new plan for breaking through Vienna’s thick protective walls. They would tunnel under them, fill the trenches with gunpowder, and blow the walls to smithereens.
The Ottomans were shoveling away in the wee hours of morning when everyone was asleep. However, that was also the time when the city’s bakers had to fire up their ovens to bake everyone’s daily bread from their last remaining bit of grain. As they were kneading their dough, they heard strange noises under their feet. They hurried to contact the authorities who were able to dig their own tunnels and intercept the gunpowder.
Finally, the king of Poland and his army of allied forces appeared on the horizon. They charged the Ottomans who fled the scene. The battle was won and Vienna was saved.
To commemorate the victory, and the role they played in saving their city, the bakers created a special pastry. They made it in a crescent moon shape which was the symbol on the Ottoman flag. It was to remind everyone of their victory. They called their creation kipferl which means crescent in the Austrian German language.
These pastries would migrate to France and eventually become the croissant (the French word for crescent). But before we go to France, let’s continue in Austria a bit longer.
Dip It in Coffee
It seems that crescent-shaped pastry wasn’t the only thing inspired by the Ottoman Turks. Their army had come to Vienna planning to stay and had brought lots of provisions with them. It was all left behind when they fled, and the soldiers who had saved the city got the spoils left behind. Some of them took camels, others took carpets, but one soldier took bags full of strange beans. This soldier had travelled in Turkey and knew exactly what he was getting. He opened Vienna’s first coffee house.
Unfortunately, no one wanted to taste his strange brew. To make it more appealing, he decided to pair it with a pastry. He asked a local baker for a little bread that would go well with the coffee and would make people want to try the new drink. The Turkish invasion was still fresh in everyone’s memory and the baker suggested the little crescent-shaped kipferl. The coffee and kipferl combination was a hit, and this was the beginning of the now popular French breakfast of croissant and coffee.
Marie Antoinette Legend
The croissant’s curious story continues with another legend concerning Marie Antoinette, the infamous Austrian queen. She was sent to France at the age of fourteen to marry the future King Louis XVI. The lonely young girl missed her homeland and asked the court bakers to make her the kipferl that she remembered from home. She introduced it to the court along with other little pastries from her homeland. Collectively, they became known as viennoiserie.
19th Century Paris
By the nineteenth century, the kipferl had taken up residency in France, but it was a far cry from the flaky pastry we know today. It was still the Austrian version: made of a heavy dough, similar to that of a brioche, but small and in the shape of a crescent.
Around 1837, two Austrians opened a Viennese bakery in Paris. At that time the crescent-shaped pastry was still called kipferl, and by mid-century it had become a popular bread in France. As it became more common, the name was changed from kipferl (the Austrian German word for crescent) to croissant (the French word for crescent). Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the croissant took on its now familiar, flaky form and was on its way to becoming a symbol of France.
Curved or Straight
With so much talk of crescents and the croissant being named for its curved shape, I couldn’t help but wonder why all those buttery croissants that I had eaten in France were straight. Why weren’t they curved like a crescent?
Well, that’s an interesting story too… In the beginning, all croissants were made in a crescent shape, and they were all made with butter. Then in the middle of the nineteenth century, margarine was invented. It was cheaper than butter and had a longer shelf-life. It was the way of the future.
Thoroughly modern margarine began replacing butter in croissants. However, the French like full disclosure on what they are eating, so the bakers had to let people know what was in their croissants. They decided to make two different versions. Thinking that margarine would make butter obsolete, croissants made with margarine were left in the traditional crescent shape, and croissants made with butter took on a straight form.
The curved croissant (made with margarine) is called a croissant ordinaire and is now less common than the straight one (made with butter). The French seem to prefer buttery croissants (as do I) and this is why, today, in France most croissants are not really in the shape of a croissant.
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