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.
More about France – You can read more stories like this in my book Berets, Baguettes, and Beyond.
More stories about bread:
- History of the French baguette: Legends, Laws, and Lengthy Loaves
- Bread delivery: Les Porteuses de Pain
- Bread and Bad Luck
- Cocteau, Picasso, and a Tale of two Breads
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♦ Read About Another Battle with the Turks: Click the image below:
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Très interesting! You always amaze me how you research such incredible histories.
Thank you! I’m just a curious gal. 🙂
There should be more “gals” like you!
Another great piece of research, Margo. I had some vague idea about the relationship with Vienna and the Turkish flag, but the convolutions are incredible – right up to the “straight” croissant. The last time I was in France I didn’t realise I had to be careful to pick the straight ones to have buttery croissants! Here in Australia, there is no such convenient discrimination – you have to ask at the Bakery to make sure you are getting butter, not margarine. They are so delicious, I will have to go to my local bakery tomorrow morning to get a lovely fresh one for breakfast!
I had one for breakfast this morning. (This is one reason I don’t often write about food – it makes me want to eat whatever I’m writing about.) But it was really good! 🙂
Today, in France, the straight, buttery kind are the norm and probably what you will get if you just go into a bakery and ask for a croissant.
Mine was great for breakfast this morning too. Luckily I am in Melbourne now, with a French Bakery close by! And I have a similar effect to the one you describe – in my case, reading about delicious food makes me want to eat whatever it might be!
There was a tiny bakery near St.Sulpice Metro and I was buying for 6 people so I bought 12. They were small and straight and I didn’t know they were butter and very rich. We all had 1 for breakfast and later we all had the other ones. The wrapping and bag were transparent from the butter. They were the best I’ve ever tasted.
Yummm! My mouth is watering now thinking about those buttery, flakey croissants. They are so good – especially if you get them right when they come out of the oven. Heavenly!
Unfortunately, I’m in the UK now, and I’ve tried several croissants here, but they are always disappointing. Nobody makes them like the French!
Wow! Tied to the original 911! The heroic Christian knights arrived to terminate the Moslem siege on Sep 11th 1683. I’ll definitely think of this delightful croissant story next time I enjoy one with my coffee. Regards to another distinguished knight–Jeff Lestz.
That anonymous was a mistake–didn’t mean to be anonymous. It was me, Rabbi Daniel Lapin enthusing about your fascinating pastry story. Keep on writing…
Thank you, Rabbi Lapin. Enjoy your croissant!
I’ll pass your regards on to Sir Jeffrey. 🙂
Je vous en prie. 🙂
Wow! fascinating history. Going to share this now with our followers and future bakers.
Thank you. I imagine you bake a very nice croissant yourself! 🙂
You find all the interesting facts! Great article for foodies!
Thanks for the mention. 🙂
I’m enlightened with the history/info and weighed down while eating too many croissants🇫🇷There’s a bakery near metro St.. Sulpice that makes small size croissants so it makes you buy more than you normally would BUT they are so rich with butter that eating more than one or two sends you over Pont Neuf!
Ha ha! Yes, those deceptively light and flaky pastries can add on the pounds! But they are so good that sometimes it’s worth it! 🙂
That was very interesting!
Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂
Do you have a source for this story? I keep seeing it everywhere but the it seems to be apocrypha…
Hello Fay, Thanks for your question. In my article, I call it the ‘Croissant Origin Legend’ and I believe that is what it is. Of course the 1683 Battle of Vienna was historical, but whether the croissant was born of it seems to be legend. I’ve not seen any factual historical evidence of it. Hope that answers your question. All the best, -Margo