Sep 12th, 2016, 11:23 PM

A Short History of the Croissant

By Karen Leong
Image credit: Shutterstock
Many believe the croissant is a quintessentially French pastry, but it traces its origins back to the Ottomann siege of Vienna.

When I say croissant, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Probably an enjoyable Parisian breakfast near the Eiffel Tower or a quick treat before French class. 

But what is the origin of this delicious viennoiserie? Let's start with a translation of that word. In English the word translates as pastry. In French, however, viennoiseries comes from the word “viennois” for people and things from Vienna, the capital of Austria. Indeed, Austria is the actual birthplace of France's most famous breakfast pastry.

The kipferl, the ancestor of the croissant, stretches back to the 13th century in Austria. The modern croissant's saga began in 1683 when the invading Turks attempted to tunnel underneath the walls of Vienna during the Ottomann siege of the city. Fortunately, bakers working through the night heard the sounds of the Turks digging and alerted the city’s defenders. King John III of Poland arrived in time to defeat the Turks.

Following the Ottomann defeat, according to some accounts, Austrian bakers wanted to celebrate their victory by creating a pastry that would symbolize the crescent moon that appears on the Turkish flag. The kipferl — the German word for "crescent" — became that symbol.  For Austrians, eating a kipferl was a culinary re-enactment of victory over the Turks — eating their enemy.

The kipferl made its way to France in 1770 when Austrian-born Marie-Antoinette (below) was offered in marriage to the future Louis XVI. Marie-Antoinette felt homesick when she arrived in France and missed Austrian cuisine. The royal bakers decided to make kipferl in her honor, which they subsequently named, “croissant.”

Slowly, the pastry became more famous and has started to spread throughout France. In 1839, a half century after the French Revolution, an Austrian baker named August Zang was the first to open a Viennese bakery in Paris. It was located at 92 rue de Richelieu in the 2nd arrondissement. Nearly two centuries later, the boulangerie is long closed and has become an insurance office. But its great success inspired many other French bakers to imitate the pastry.

Over the years, the croissant has evolved as bakers added more butter to their flaky masterpieces. Though the croissant is not originally a French pastry, it has been a staple in the French bakery since the 1920s when bakers perfected the shape and recipe of the croissants we savor every morning. It is not to be confused with the British croissant, which is straight. The French have remained faithful to the original Austrian crescent shape. 

Today you can still find a kipferl croissant in Parisian bakeries such as the famous Boulangerie Schou, at 96 rue de la Faisanderie, 75016.