Great Northern Butter

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.

2 thoughts on “Great Northern Butter”

  1. So here I am wandering around in the archives on a slow day at work…and I trip over this, which I have to dispute. There are references in cookbooks from 13th century Andalusia and Syria that refer to using butter or clarified butter in a number of contexts, including sweets and pastries. One of the Andalusian recipes is particularly interesting in this context: it calls for making a pastry dough, rolling it very thin, brushing it with melted butter, then rolling it up and rolling it out thin again. The title translates to something like “how to make a buttery pastry which is called leafy”.

    Which is not to say that the Saracens were munching on Danishes with their Turkish coffee: all the Arab recipes I can find use melted butter (which is probably a matter of practicality in a Mediterranean kitchen with no refrigeration). There’s nothing that resembles a shortcrust pastry or a modern laminated dough, which both seem to be northern innovations, and rather later (the earliest recognisable puff pastry recipe I’ve found was published just after 1600, and the yeast-raised ones are even later).

    I also wouldn’t assume that European butter use spread from the Islamic world – I suspect it’s more a matter of parallel evolution. Butter-making is common to most places that keep cows, which leads to people finding ways to use butter. In any place that also has wheat and ovens, that’s likely to mean some kind of pastry.

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