The flaky, buttery delicious crescent-shaped pastry called a croissant is a French icon and yet… it isn’t really French.
History of the croissant
History has it that croissants originated in Austria. There are several versions of the story and none of them can be fully substantiated but the premise is that whilst at war with Turkey in the late 1600s, a baker working late at night heard the Turkish soldiers tunnelling under the walls of the city of Vienna and alerted the Austrian guard. They collapsed the tunnel which saved the city and the baker in a moment of genius created a pastry in the shape of a crescent moon, the emblem of the Turkish empire. It is said that he intended that when his customers bit into the pastry, they would be symbolically devouring their enemies. He called his creation a kipfel, the German word for croissant. However, historians say that there is written evidence that the kipfel was being made as far back as the 13th century…
A legend is born
A later story tells that Marie-Antoinette bought the kipfel to France from her homeland of Austria. Feeling homesick, she commanded the royal bakers to make the pastry for her. Unlike the bread dough that the Austrian version was made with, the bakers used puff pastry. An unlikely story but, a legend was born…
Yet another tale, and far more likely, claims that an Austrian artillery officer named August Zang founded the “Boulangerie Viennoise” at 92, rue de Richelieu in Paris in the 1830s. He brought the recipe for kipfels with him and it became popular with his customers, thanks to his knack for marketing. He later moved back to Austria and founded the country’s first daily newspaper and amassed a fortune. By 1872, Charles Dickens who travelled across France at length mentioned the croissant as a staple of French food and enthused over the “dainty croissant on the boudoir table” in Paris.
In the early twentieth century, French bakers improved on the recipe by making it from even more layers of deliriously buttered puff pastry. The croissant as we know and love it today was born. When you’re in France, look for the “fait maison” sign which indicates breads and pastries are handmade. There’s even an annual contest to find the regional baker making the best croissants. Wherever you are, just ask the locals for their tips on where to buy your croissant – they’ll always have an opinion!
It is traditional to eat croissants plain for breakfast in France, preferably dunked in coffee.