Like the baguette, the croissant is one of the most recognised symbols for the French culture and way of life - or the ‘savoir vivre’. But the Frenchest of the French pastries has many stories behind it.
The name is taken from the crescent moon (‘croissant de la lune’) and was first mentioned in a French dictionary in 1863. The first recipe was published nearly 50 years later in the Nouvelle Encyclopedie Culinaire, around 1906.
There are a number of myths surrounding the origins of the pastry. Some say it was created to celebrate the defeat of the Ottoman troops’ during the 1683 Vienna siege. Legend has it that bakers, starting work early, discovered the attempt to enter the Austrian city through a system of tunnels. The croissant form, so the story goes, was a mockery of the half moon symbol of the Ottoman Empire, and a reminder of their thwarted siege. A different source puts the same story in Hungary. It connects it to the reconquest of Budapest from the Ottoman Empire in 1686. Nice legends, sure, but both are lacking in evidence.
It may, in fact, be the case that the Frenchest of all French pastries has its roots in Austrian monasteries, and monks’ tradition of baking cookies in the form of their goats’ horns. These cookies could have been the inspiration for the so-called ‘Hoernchen’ (‘little horns’), a pastry that found its way to the Austrian breakfast table. From here, another legend says, it was Marie Antoinette who brought the croissant to France.
In truth, the croissant may have humbler beginnings in France. August Zang, an Austrian soldier, has been credited with the transplant of the pastry from his home country. He founded a bakery, La Boulangerie Viennoise, in Paris in the late 1830s and could be a more probable source for the triumph of the croissant in all its variations.
Whatever its origins, the croissant has now been the symbol for a French breakfast for nearly 200 years, often combined with jam, honey and butter, and washed down with a café au lait. More than 50% of the French eat croissants at least once or twice a week; consuming a total of 47 million croissants per week; or 2.5 billion per year. Fun fact: more than 40% - or 142 million - people in the US also eat croissants and January 30th is the National Croissant Day in the country. Because wherever they hail from, the croissant is now a universal favourite.