The Entirely Bogus History of the Croissant

Croissants are one of those classic foods about which there’s so much misinformation it’s impossible to know how it really came into being. What we do know is that the first printed references to croissants come from French cookbooks dating to the 1850’s. Yet croissants as we know them today (yeasty, buttery, usually savory things) didn’t come on the scene until the early 20th century.

But that hasn’t stopped people (especially food journalists) from repeating all kinds of fanciful stories about them. My favorite goes back to what is without question the most baking-intensive conflict in the history of warfare, the battle to which more baked goods are attributed than any other: the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Why should this particular battle be so darned important (especially to baking)? Probably because it marked a very important end and a very important beginning. The “end” was the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into Europe, which had been steadily progressing since about 1300. That of course was a very big deal for Europeans, since it probably saved Western civilization as we know it. The “beginning” was the great flowering of Viennese baking and pastry arts, which for some reason happened right about the same time (probably because the institution we know as the cafe came along just then [for more on that see the post: What’s the Deal with Vienna?]).

But I digress. The story goes like this: one dark night in 1683 the city of Vienna lay surrounded. The Turkish army under the command of Pasha Kara Mustafa was laying siege to the city, preparing to invade. The inhabitants were gripped by fear as they awaited the inevitable Turkish attack. As to how and when that would occur, no one could say. In the meantime, work went on in the city largely as usual. That included work at a small bakery situated right against the city’s gigantic wall. One night as the bakers worked they heard a curious tapping sound, which they soon determined was the sound of the Turks trying to tunnel into Vienna in a surprise attack. But how to raise the alarm? We are but lowly bakers! I know!, said the owner of the bake shop, We shall bake a thousand crescent-shaped rolls and spread them about the city! And they did. And because the crescent shape was the insignia of the Ottomans, all who saw them realized what was about to happen. The alarm was raised, the attack repelled, and the Turks defeated. All thanks to one humble yet intrepid baker, whose only request afterward was that he be allowed to make and sell the pastry ever after. Pretty good story.

There are several variants of course, one of which dates the story to the Ottomans’ previous attempt to take Vienna in 1529. That conflict, known as the Siege of Vienna, was also called the Siege of the Moles because it involved and awful lot of tunneling and strange subterranean war. I can’t help but wonder if the two events, the Battle and the Siege have been conflated into one grand masterpiece of food mythology.

Another version sets the scene in Buda, the Western half of present-day Budapest (Pest being the other half, and no, that’s not a joke) in 1686. The critical error there is that it was the Turks who were living in Buda at the time, ever since they’d taken the city some 150 years earlier. There was indeed a siege that took place in Buda in 1686, but the besiegers were the Habsburgs, who were taking the city back.

Still another attributes the croissant to the Battle of Tours all the way back in 732. This was the time when the Moors were really on a roll, having conquered all of North Africa, Sicily and Cyprus, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and swept up the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain). They were pressing their advantage northward into France when the Franks under Charles “the Hammer” Martel showed up, caught them by surprise, and literally put the hammer down on the whole party. The Moors would never again see France, and so the croissant was created to commemorate their defeat (or so it’s said).

So, we’ve got a lot of stories, a lot of defeated Muslims, and a lot of bakers either warning their populations or celebrating their national victories with croissants. All very strange for a pastry no one had ever tasted before 1900.

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