Picture this: You’re in a chic outfit, possibly a scarf as a utilitarian accent, and the smell of freshly baked pastries calls your attention. You walk the cobblestone steps of Paris to a corner street pâtisserie, struggle with your French as you order a hot chocolate and a croissant — your first in this imagined trip to the City of Love. As you take your first bite of the warm, buttery, flaky pastry, you can’t help but audibly gasp, “Oh my god.”
The scene may be very reminiscent of Emily in Paris, but everyone dreams of eating a croissant (pronounced kwah•son) in the land where it originated — at least, I know I do.
If you really wanted to trace its roots with a trip, though, you’d have to book a plane ticket to Vienna. Eating croissants may make for the quintessential French experience today, but we have Austria to thank for inventing the beloved breakfast pastry.
The Croissant Was First Baked in Vienna
No one can definitively say where the croissant came from, but consensus among food and cultural historians is that it is of Austrian origin. In particular, it is said to have come from Vienna where it was — and still is — referred to as kipferl (or kipfel).
If you Google the Viennese baked good, though, the only resemblance to the croissant we know is the crescent shape. The kipferl doesn’t have the characteristic sheen of the modern-day croissant, and it definitely looks denser and not as flaky.
However, the airiness and butteryness of the bread weren’t top of mind when it was reportedly created in Austria. Local legend says that croissants — or, at least, the first iteration of croissants — came about after the Ottoman Empire’s attempted siege of Vienna in 1683.
According to this tale, which many have come to accept as true if not convenient, a Viennese bread maker woke up early to bake. He heard the Turkish cavalry passing through the city’s tunnels and naturally tipped off the guards. This allowed Austrian troops to prepare for and ultimately survive the siege.
To celebrate the victory and the tip that proved crucial to it, everyone passed bread around and broke it together. They rolled it into a crescent shape to add insult to the injury of the Ottoman Empire, whose flag bore the symbol.
Although kipferl is not German for crescent, the French word croissant is, hence the pastry’s name.
Marie Antoinette or August Zang: Who Brought the Pastry to France?
So now that we know that croissants didn’t actually come from France, the next question is: How did this crescent-shaped bread make its way to it?
One popular explanation is that it was Marie Antoinette, the last queen before the French Revolution, who introduced it to the country. (Perhaps it was actually croissants that she allowed the peasants to eat, not cake.)
The story goes that Marie Antoinette, who, much like the pastry, is Austrian-born and not of French descent, was missing her homeland.
She ordered her personal chefs and pastry-makers to recreate her favorite childhood treats, including the kipferl. Once the introduction was made, the French could not resist its buttery goodness.
However, food historian Jim Chevallier says that this is nothing but an urban legend. He adds that this detail would have been recorded, given that the queen “received as much attention in her time as the Kardashians and Taylor Swift do today.”
One person who’s more likely to have really brought the Viennese baked good to France and shifted the country’s culinary history is entrepreneur August Zang. The Austrian opened the doors to Boulangerie Viennoise in 1838, selling a wide array of his local bread and pastries to Parisians.
Among them is the kipferl, which became an instant hit among the French. Two years later, every boulangerie and pâtisserie in town were selling recreations of what they eventually dubbed the croissant.
Not Every Croissant Is Butter-Heavy
This might be mildly shocking, but the fact is that not all croissants are made equal. In fact, not all are rolled into a crescent shape. If you’ve traveled to France, you’d notice that the pricier ones tend to take the form of a rectangle or a triangle.
These are called croissant au beurre, which translates to butter croissant. You might see them displayed next to the croissant ordinaire or plain croissant.
The former is made with pure French butter. The International Culinary Center’s Chef Jansen Chan explains that this contains more butterfat than the kind you get in North America. The quality of the lipids is important, as it’s responsible for creating delicious pastry pockets that melt in your mouth.
Plain croissants have a mix of butter and margarine, or sometimes, just margarine and other vegetable oils. They’re still satisfying on any given day, but they’re not as rich as the non-ordinaire variety.
Some say the two versions were born to appease different classes. Noble Frenchmen could afford higher quality croissants. Meanwhile, the lower classes were satisfied with the less expensive kinds. In France, it seems, everyone deserves a croissant!
The Croissant Made Its World Debut in the 1889 World’s Fair
World’s Fairs are the time and place to showcase a country’s proudest inventions.
Some notable examples of debuts are Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair, or the first color television that debuted in New York in 1964.
The Paris World’s Fair of 1889 exhibited some of the country’s proudest achievements.
The grandest one is, without a doubt, the Eiffel Tower, but that year, the croissant was a more palatable invention that anyone could take home.
By this time, the French had made adjustments to the original kipferl recipe. The croissant is now baked with puff pastry instead of yeasted dough, and so they could start claiming it as their own. After all, it was French apprentice cook Claude Gelée who accidentally invented puff pastry in the 17th century.
Americans Have Fully Embraced Croissants
With the deliciousness and popularity of croissants, it’s impossible for the rest of the world not to take notice — especially not if you introduce it at a literal World’s Fair!
Industrializing and making it commercially available is only inevitable. For instance, Pillsbury Doughboy introduced the refrigerated Crescent Rolls that home cooks can simply thaw, pop into an oven, and enjoy.
You could also say that tweaking its recipe or “fusing” it with other baked goods was bound to happen. We’ve seen it in trends like the cronut, a donut made with croissant puff pastry, and the crogel. It’s — you guessed it — a combination of a croissant with a bagel.
Croissants are one of the most popular pastries in the world, but most are unaware of their curious history. I say one way you can celebrate it is to give its origins a nod. The best time to do that? National Croissant Day, which we celebrate every 30th of January.
Pay tribute to this buttery pastry in whatever way you can — whether that’s to find a local pâttiserie that serves traditionally made croissants, a pack of Pillsbury’s crescent rolls, or a fusion with another baked good you love. I hardly think the French, who transformed the Austrians’ kipferl into their national pastry, will take offense.