Got this question in from a reader last evening:
Joe, I thought you said Arabs invented pastry, now you say it was the Viennese? Please explain.
Actually I guess it’s more of a directive than a question, but I’m happy to oblige either way.
The northern European contribution to the pastry arts can be summed up in a single word: butter. Prior to butter, the only fat pre-industrial peoples had on-hand to make pastry with was oil. In the Mediterranean, olive oil. This was a handy fat for “enriching” pastry or painting onto layers of phyllo dough to lubricate them, but it was utterly useless for creating the myriad ultra-thin layers that we associate with fine pastry. The reason: because oil soaks in, causing dough layers to collapse and/or stick.
This is why, while the Arabs, Greeks and Romans all ate pastry of a sort, they never really hit the ball out of the proverbial ball park with flaky dough. Their pastries tended to be small, hard and dense. Butter’s big advantage was that it was semi-solid and spreadable, and so could be rolled into sheets of dough (when it was kept cool enough). So, while it is true that Mediterranean peoples were the ones who first invented layered pastries, it took northern peoples and their dairy herds to gives us Danishes and croissants.