I think the record should be put out there, I will sell my soul for a good selection of pastries. When my sister and I were younger, we were normally the ones on breakfast duty when we camped in France, Germany and Italy. That meant getting up at an obscene time to beat all of the continental folk and getting the good choice of pastry, I’m not even ashamed to say that the first phrase I ever learned in French was “Je vousdrais un pain au chocolat/pain au raisin, si vous plait” (that may not even be proper, I was 7 years old…and hungry).
I felt I owed it to myself to learn a little more about the history of the humble croissant, in all of its buttery, light, flaky glory (oh man, I may even be salivating a little). It’s a well known fact that the actual word ‘croissant’, simply means ‘crescent’, named for the shape of the pastry. But how was it created?
There are many myths surrounding it, that queens (Marie Antoinette – totally false) blessed the French people with them, or that artillery officers bought ‘kipfel‘ to them from Austria to France. There is also a rather interesting story from a 19th Century French writer, he supposed that the croissant was actually based on an Ancient Greek delicacy, made with flour and honey, which was crafted to resemble an entire bull or bovine entity to replace real sacrifices. And that the croissant were simply the horns that were left. Over time, he claimed, that the ‘bull’s horns’ became a glorious dedication to Selenes, Greek Goddess of the moon, and thus became ‘crescent’. Whether this is speculation or not (it probably is), I quite like the story.
Either way, there is documented proof of crescent-shaped rolls from early Christian history, even going as far as listing the feasts that convents used to have, which included “Panem lunatem facial“
Panis Lunatis – small crescent-shaped rolls of the finest flour were eaten in convents, and especially during fasts, They are still known in various parts of Switzerland under the name of gipfel
Aka, the wonderful kipfel. And this is where our modern history begins. Kudos if you’ve read this far and not strayed onto Buzzfeed or Reddit.
A very popular myth (that I believed until very recently), is that during the Siege of Vienna, where the Turkish tried to infiltrate the city, bakers were up late at night and heard the soldiers burrowing underground trying to find a secret way past the walls. They warned the city guard and thus had them caught and killed. And as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek celebration, they decided to create a crescent shaped pastry as a homage (mockery) to the Turkish-Ottoman flag. The audacity of it all. (this flag was used between 1453-1517):
Now originally the kipfel was made up of only 4 simple ingredients: butter or lard, fine flour, sugar and sweet almonds. If you have ever eaten a good, original croissant before you know that they do not contain almonds, and aren’t particularly sweet, so a far cry from the original kipfel that gave it it’s name. So it becomes a little confusing how it managed to skip one whole generation.
The answer, or the most likely answer, lies in one artillery officer from Vienna (skipped over that partial myth earlier, didn’t you?), named August Zang (what a cool-ass name). He supposedly moved to Paris aged around 21 after changing careers from the army, and his entrepreneurial eye (or his eavesdropping on a French officer’s conversation in Vienna) saw a gap in the market for quality Viennese breads and pastries in Paris, thus began Boulangerie Viennoise on rue de Richelieu, 92.
After a year of a successful business, he then went back to Vienna, studied everything to do with the patisserie business, even down to how the ovens were built and run, everything except actual baking. He returned to Paris, and took with him his new found knowledge to his bakery, with a whole host of baking staff following at his heels. Zang was incredibly business minded, and a very evolutionary man, he turned his industriousness to many different trades, from owning and running the Boulangerie Viennoise, to directing a newspaper in Trieste, agricultural work in Budapest, and managed forges in Moravia. Jack of all trades doesn’t quite seem to cover it. But either way, after his bakery’s opening in 1838-1839, a whole storm exploded on the popularity of light, delicate breads (anything that wasn’t pain de campagne, a sourdough like loaf which was so popular at the time), these incredibly light and buttery loaves went on to become the modern-day croissant, after a few edits and reprisals.