Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Culinary Mythology: the Croissant

Another myth that I'd never heard was bogus. But here we have the whole story.
According to one of a group of similar legends, which vary only in detail, a baker of the 17th century, working through the night at a time when his city (either Vienna in 1683 or Budapest in 1686) was under siege by the Turks, heard faint underground rumbling sounds which, on investigation, proved to be caused by a Turkish attempt to invade the city by tunneling under the walls. The tunnel was blown up. The baker asked no reward other than the exclusive right to bake crescent-shaped pastries commemorating the incident, the crescent being the symbol of Islam. He was duly rewarded in this way, and the croissant was born.

This story seems to owe its origin, or at least its wide diffusion, to Alfred Gottschalk, who wrote about the croissant for the first edition of the Larousse gastronomique (1938) and there gave the legend in the "Turkish attack on Budapest in 1686" version; but who subsequently, in his own book (1948) on the history of food, opted for the "siege of Vienna in 1683" version.

In fact, the world-famous croissant of Paris (and France) cannot be traced back beyond the latter half of the 19th century, at the very earliest. The first relevant mention in any dictionary definition of the word was in 1863, the first recipe under the name "croissant" (but describing an oriental pastry) in 1891, and the earliest recipe which corresponds to the modern croissant in 1905.

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