CROISSANTS: THE TURKS, THE MOON AND THE FRENCH

CROISSANTS: THE TURKS, THE MOON & THE FRENCH

The origin of croissants is richly steeped in socio-historical anecdotes accounting for the amazing knowledge bits to nerd yourself about. From the Ottoman siege to Mary Antoinette to the massive commercialisation of it across the world, croissants have come a long way from being just a breakfast bread. Close to being considered a French Pastry like delicacy, croissants’ identity is one that is existential (no puns intended) and is constantly refuted, discussed and debated over.

Food historians, although ambiguously, connect the trademark crescent shape of croissants to the crescent shaped moon on flags of the Ottoman empire in the 14th century. The story goes something like this: During the Ottoman siege of Vienna, an Austrian baker while baking in the cellar discovered the underground route of the Turks (that was furtively routed towards Vienna). The discovery led to mass funded expulsion of the Ottomans and the Turks from the Austrian capital. As a call for victory, the Viennese bakers created a crescent shaped bread, a shape consciously chosen to bear resemblance to the crescent moon on the Turkish flag. They integrated their culinary expertise into their war history and now we have moon shaped breads to eat!

Some also propose that Mary Antoinette, an Austrian by birth, introduced croissants passingly to the court people of Versailles after her marriage with Louis XVI. The courtly distribution of croissants further led to a class based distribution of it wherein they became culinary symbols of wealth for the rich, upper-class. However, the local bakeries run by the less wealthy demography experimented with the ingredients to produce their affordable version of croissants. Interestingly, it so turned out that the affordable, modest croissants with less butter retained a better crescent shape than the richly butter-laden ones baked for the upper class.

Originally a small pastry in Austria known as kipferl or hornchen in some East European nations, croissants have come a long way since its parent breads. Kipferl, unlike the contemporary croissant, is much denser and more sweet. In the 19th century, a French bakery called the Boulangerie Viennoise (run again by Austrian born bakers, August Zang and Ernest Schwartzer) generously experimented with Kipferl by adding more sugar and butter. The final baked good to come across bore strong resemblance to the croissant as we know today.

The Viennese origins thus most obviously explain why croissants along with other baked goods like pain au chocolat, almond croissants, brioches, and apple tarts are called viennoiseries, literally meaning Vienna-styled baked goods. The Viennese croissants are made of brioche dough, a dough rich in yeast and is buttered with egg, a clear distinction from the French styled croissants that are made of puff pastries. The use of puff pastry is what escalated croissants to its global culinary popularity and its very unique and distinctive French identity. While Vienna bore croissants from scratch, French experimented with the ingredients to serve the world a paraphernalia of crescent shaped baked goods. Some of the most consumed croissant variants are

  • Croissant au beurre (with concentrated butter)
  • Croissant aux chocolat et amandes (almond and chocolate croissant)
  • Croissant au chocolat (chocolate croissant)
  • Croissant aux amandes (almond croissant)
  • Croissant nature (with margarita)

French croissants like any other material goods was reflective of the clear class demarcations existing in the French societies. Such reflection came in terms of its accessibility and of which kind. The finer quality breads were accessible only to the upper class like croissant au beurre (one heavily laden with butter and rich yeast) while the lower quality or ordinaire croissant (ordinary croissant made with margarine) was consumed by and accessible to the lower class. Croissants however did unify the French people by being one of the overarching symbols of 20th century French life along with cafes, existentialism, and turtlenecks!

One can also locate the evolution of croissants from a home baked good to that of a packaged product in the context of French industrialisation and its investment in mass production of goods. Industrial production of croissants comprises 70% of its entire distribution across the world. Artisanal bakeries account for 1% of their produce to just Viennoiserie baking goods, weighing their market value to a sizable amount. Franchises and huge megamarkets produce pre-molded and frozen croissants which are reduced in terms of quality but consumed by confectionery lovers worldwide nonetheless. While quality becomes a compromise, the accessibility of it far outweighs the odds. With its rich texture, fascinating history and heavenly taste, croissants have served to bring people together in their common quest for French bread!

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