Hmm…remind you of anything? If you said croissant dough or puff pastry, then you get to day’s cash prize (conditions apply, subject to void where prohibited). Filo dough is the ancestor of so-called “laminated” (i.e. “layered”) doughs. The chief differences being that while filo relies on melted butter and individual stacked sheets, laminated doughs employ semi-firm butter and a clever folding method that creates their many paper-thin layers in just a few steps.
Dough folding is a European variation on the layered pastry idea that’s thought to have taken hold in Europe in about the Sixteenth Century. Layered pastries of various types are known to have been enjoyed in the Middle East well before that. So the question becomes: how did pastry A get to location B?
The pat answer for most food historians trying to explain the transmission of layered dough from the Middle East to Europe during the Middle Ages is the Crusades. Though now that I think about it, the pat answer for any kind of historian attempting to explain the transmission of anything from the Middle East to Europe during the Middle Ages is the Crusades. Sometimes in my mind’s eye I imagine a long line of battered and bloodied pilgrims heading home from Constantinpole, their oxcarts weighed down with math books, gothic stained glass windows, produce and livestock, saying to each other: I didn’t care much for the fighting, but wasn’t the pastry excellent?
I just want to rebel against that conventional wisdom. Sure the crusades lasted a long time (from about 1100 A.D. to about 1300 A.D.). Sure they involved the movement of large numbers of people, from fighters to missionaries, tradesmen, merchants and their families (no doubt plenty of bakers went a long for the ride). The problem is, the last Crusade to the Middle East ended in 1291. Layered doughs don’t become common in Europe until at least 200 years later, which is a long time to wait to start folding dough.
But who knows? Maybe a few Crusaders took some examples of layered dough home from the Crusades, then spent 200 years in their R&D kitchens working out the technical details. Possible, though me, I tend to doubt it. Do I have a better explanation for how layered pastry came from the Middle East to Europe? No. However one thing I know for sure, it wasn’t The Battle of Vienna.
UPDATE: Reader Gerhard adds:
Just a thought about how layered pastry came to Europe: the Moors in Spain/France. They were defeated in 1492; their descendants, the Moriscos, were finally expelled in 1615. That’s of course just an idea, but it would make sense.
Seems possible. I also believe a great deal of foreign goods and ideas entered Europe via trade in those days, through the great Italian city states (of which Venice is an example).