There are more than a few stories about how puff pastry evolved. An oft-cited one involves a Renaissance pastry chef by the name of Claudius Gele whose sick father was prescribed a diet of water, flour and butter by his doctor (the doctor was later burned at the stake for not knowing what the hell he was doing). Ever creative, his son whipped up a cake composed of only those three things, folding it over and over before finally baking it. Removing it from the oven he was astounded and delighted by what came out.
Hogwash of course, but it makes for a great story. Just like the one about the bread designed to fit down the pants of Napoleonic foot soldiers (baguettes), or the sea captain who invented a cake with a hole that he could eat off the ship’s wheel (doughnuts). Nonsense, but delightful nonsense. In general it seems that landmark culinary achievments, unlike landmark technical achievments, don’t just pop out of nowhere, the work of a single inspired genius. Rather, they happen incrementally over time, with creative people adding to the work of those who came before. Which doesn’t actually make for great story telling, so I guess it’s easy to see why these kinds of made-up anecdotes have such enduring appeal.
But back in the real world…while most food historians agree that Renaissance pastry chefs did indeed perfect the technique of folding buttered dough, sweets composed of many layers of ultra-thin pastry had been around for centuries before…among the Arabs. Baklava can be traced at least to 11th century Turkey, though it’s probably much older, since similar types of confections were being made by the Egyptians over a millennia before.
Of course the Europeans and the Arabs weren’t exchanging recipe cards in those days (more like flaming arrows the length of cross-country skis). Yet more than a few prominent food historians believe that a significant chunk of the European culinary tradition did arrive via the Arabs during their 800-year occupation of Spain. And so it makes at least intuitive sense that the protypes for puff pastry were around well before the 1600’s.