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Croissants: An Austrian Gift to France

When you think of croissants, what country comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you probably thought of France, and indeed, the French do make great croissants. They even gave us the word for them. But as famous as the French are for them, the croissant is not a French invention. The origin of the croissant is actually a ways to the east, in Austria. Specifically they were invented in Vienna, in 1683. That year, the city of Vienna was under siege by a massive Ottoman army composed of approximately 140,000 soldiers. To put this in perspective, the population of the Ottoman Empire at the time was somewhere around 11 million, which meant that more than one out of every hundred Ottoman citizens were in Austria for the siege of one city. Less than 300 years later, the United States would deploy roughly one out of every 100 citizens to fight World War II, across Europe and the Pacific, over a four-year span. The Ottoman Empire was investing the equivalent in blood and money that the United States poured into World War II. It is difficult to overstate this military campaign. Why was Vienna so important? For the Ottoman Empire, 1683 wasn’t the first time they tried to capture the city. They had tried before in 1529, unsuccessfully, and were still bitter about it. The capture of Vienna represented a kind of completion of the Turkish nation in the minds of the Ottomans; they wanted it bad. Besides the visceral significance of the city, it also held strategic significance. If captured, it would have expanded Turkish power in central Europe beyond anything they had ever managed in their 140 years of pushing into the continent. For Vienna, the motivation was simple: it just didn’t want to be conquered. However, the Austrian garrison there was a mere 11,000 soldiers plus 5,000 volunteers—a little more than one tenth of that of the invader. The Austrian garrison had 312 guns, only half of which were operational at the time. This would have to be a bloody, hand-to-hand battle. They had the home turf advantage, which helped, but it couldn’t help enough.

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The Ottoman siege of Vienna.  Note the Ottoman standard—the red flags on the right-hand side.

The help they got came from elsewhere. Austria was part of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, an empire that included most of modern Germany and Austria, plus significant parts of what are now Italy and other countries. Allied with the Holy Romans were Hungary, the Republic of Venice, and the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, which were effectively one country. The Ottomans had as allies Moldavia (now called Moldova), the Khanate of Crimea, and a short-lived vassal state called the Principality of Upper Hungary. On July 14, the siege of Vienna began. Pasha Kara Mustafa, the leader of the Ottoman forces, demanded that Vienna surrender. The Viennese garrison said no, so the Ottomans decided to wait and starve them out. Early in the siege, Ottoman soldiers tried to tunnel under the city walls in the middle of the night when, according to legend, some bakers, hard at work already, heard them and alerted the guard. The Viennese garrison didn’t leave the city to take care of this, of course; they had to stand by to defend. An army led by King John III of Poland came to the rescue instead, stopping the digging and driving back Mustafa Pasha’s army for a little while. Had the Ottomans managed to enter the city, that might have been the end.

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King John III (left) and Kara Pasha Mustafa (right)

The siege went on for two more months before the Ottomans finally attacked. The Battle of Vienna erupted before dawn on September 12, 1683, and raged until dusk. The combined Polish and Holy Roman forces succeeded in driving off the invading Ottomans. Mustafa Pasha retreated, failing to capture this city that was so vital to the Ottoman identity. For his troubles, he was hanged in Belgrade on December 25. The Viennese bakers, however, were feeling pretty good about themselves. They saw themselves as heroes, and felt like gloating. The bakers had to stare at the Ottoman standards for the past two months just like everyone else, and those flags apparently made an impression on them. The Ottoman standard, like the flag of modern Turkey, featured a crescent moon, called a Kipferl locally—the German word for crescent. Bakeries started selling pastries shaped like crescents, and thus the popularity of the Kipferl was born.

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The Austrian Kipferl: sweet taste of victory.

Almost a century later, in 1770, Princess Marie of Austria would be married to King Louis XVI of France. When she moved to Versailles, she was famously homesick, which is probably why she requested French bakers to make Kipferls of their own. They changed the design of the simple pastry to something they found a little more elegant, something to befit the royal palace. They also called them by the French word: croissant. Princess Marie is better known to English speakers as Marie Antoinette, and there is a more famous (if apocryphal) story connecting her to a different kind of pastry. In 1793, during the French revolution, Marie Antoinette lost her head, but France kept her favorite pastry.

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Princess Marie-Antoinette de Habsbourg-Lorraine.  Let them eat… croissants?

The category of pastry the croissant belongs to is referred to in French as viennoiserie, which translates roughly as “Viennese stuff”. The croissant we know today is the French interpretation of the Kipferl, so it’s fair to say that the croissant is a distinct step in culinary evolution. The croissant endures today, more popular than ever, and is found outside of Austria and France. The crescent moon shape is a direct reference to the crescent moon symbol used in Islam, which is why some Islamic fundamentalists forbid croissants. That’s fine—let them eat cake.


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