The tangled history of the humble croissant – and how to eat it properly

·7-min read
croissant - Getty
croissant - Getty

And so, leaving aside present trivial concerns – Covid, Brexit, Strictly – we move to consider croissant-gate. Had you been paying attention this week, you would have noticed that Carolin Lauffenburger, an Instagram “influencer” from Berlin, has caused international havoc with a little video on how to eat croissants properly. Or “like a Parisian” (as she put it). On a visit to Paris, she is seen seated at a café terrace and – in a somewhat louche manner – dips the point of her uncut croissant into the froth of a cappuccino before devouring it.

Crikey. No-one from Berlin has caused so much trouble in Paris since... well, never mind since when. Let us simply say that it’s been noisy. “Blasphemy,” cried one outraged person. “Seriously inadmissible,” said another. We are in deep water. Questions nevertheless arise, prime among them being: why would anyone pay the blindest bit of attention to an influencer, Berliner or otherwise? It’s a puzzle, though the fact that she is blonde, extravagantly beautiful and has a very posh handbag by her on the café table may offer an avenue for research.

And, secondly, who the hell cares how one eats a croissant? Well, thousands, apparently. Seeing Ms Lauffenburger in croissant-dipping mode had, said one viewer, “made my eyes bleed”. Clearly, this is a subject which needs tackling.

But first, a step back. For those who have never been closer to France than, say, Burnley, a croissant is a flaky buttery item, halfway between bread and cake, at the heart of the French breakfast. It’s what they have instead of porridge, or bacon and eggs. Like the Eiffel Tower, Charles Aznavour and the Citroën 2CV, its very mention immediately evokes France. Well, it does now. The croissant’s origins are considerably further away. It’s said that there were crescent-shaped breads in the Middle East as far back as the fifth century AD. Perhaps earlier yet. As “croissant” means “crescent”, so there may be roots here.

The more familiar tale involves a fast-forward to 1683, when Vienna was being besieged by the Ottomans under Kara Mustafa Pasha. Allegedly he had with him 100,000 men – and 1,500 concubines. This probably explains why his mind was elsewhere. Certainly, the siege was dragging on, so the Turks determined to tunnel under the Viennese walls by night and plant explosives. All Vienna slept – except for the bakers for whom, then as now, the dead of night was their hour of knead. They heard the tunnelling, alerted the Viennese military and the Ottomans were driven back. With the help of newly-arrived Polish forces, the Austrians then beat off the Turks, thus ending the final attempt by the Ottoman Empire to push into Europe (and also ending Kara Mustapha’s life, his responsibility for the defeat leading to execution by strangulation with a silken cord).

siege of vienna - Getty
siege of vienna - Getty

Clearly, the bakers had been crucial in all this, so Austrian Archduke Leopold gave them the right to create little pastries in honour of their role. As the emblem on the Ottoman flag had been a crescent, the pastries were to be crescent-shaped – to truly stick one on the Turks. Austrians apparently took to saying: “To eat a croissant is to eat a Turk.” Maybe they still do.

Thus, anyway, the croissant evolved in Vienna. Then, the story goes, it was given a significant boost by Polish-Lithuanian nobleman Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki who, having helped the Viennese repulse the Turks, allegedly opened the first café in the Austrian capital with coffee beans that had been pinched from the departing Ottomans. Coffee was new to Austria so, to make the drink attractive, he bought in the new-fangled croissants as accompaniment. Bingo. Happiness all round – and a statue of Mr Kulczycki on the street of the same name.

Moving on again, the croissant finally travelled to France in 1770, brought by the entourage of the 14-year-old Marie-Antoinette when she left Austria to marry the future Louis XVI. At this point, the croissant was still a more solid, brioche-style pastry – what the Austrians call “kipferl” – rather than the present flaky article. It didn’t really catch on until decades later, when ex-Austrian army officer and entrepreneur, August Zang, opened a baker’s shop in Paris at 92 Rue de Richelieu, a couple of blocks from the Louvre.

The fact that Zang’s shop was unusually posh endeared it to the beau monde. The croissant made its way into Parisian society, to the extent that, 10 years on, Zang had earned enough to return to Vienna and found Die Presse, a newspaper still important in daily Austrian life. Other business ventures made him a fortune, although he apparently remained discreet about his former life as a baker. All these Viennese connections, of course, explain why the French call croissants and similar pastries “viennoiseries”.

By the early 20th-century, the croissant had democratised and was now being prepared with puff pastry, which made all the difference. Fluffiness has long appealed to the French. In cheaper croissants, the shipping quantities of butter required were now being replaced by margarine (itself invented in 1869 by a French chemist called Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, confirming the fact that that this field attracts some very strange names). The pastries also came in two shapes. Traditionally, the crescent-shaped croissants had the margarine while straight ones had the butter. Why something straight should still be called a “crescent” is a matter for mightier minds than mine.

Whatever shape it comes in, however, a croissant should be crisp and (not too) shinily golden outside, while soft and airy within. It should pull apart satisfactorily. Thus, to the vital initial question: how to eat it? Although it’s not always obvious, polite French society has its table rules. They include: break off a bit of baguette with your hand, not a knife; don’t cut lettuce – fold it over (and over again, if necessary) before forking it; don’t start eating until your host or hostess is seated and has said: “Bon appétit”; when clinking glasses in “cheers” (“santé”), look your fellow clinker in the eye; don’t spread cheese or pâté on bread – put them on in chunks, and peel your peach with a knife and fork.

Where does this leave the croissant? These days they might come filled with ham and cheese, mushrooms or frangipane, with slivers of almond on top. This is ok. It’s generally the baker’s way of giving new life to yesterday’s unsold croissants. Eat them as you would a sandwich. Incidentally, deep-fried with chocolate sauce, or curry sauce – as I’ve seen promoted on a couple of edgier websites – is possibly less ok.

carolin lauffenburger - Getty
carolin lauffenburger - Getty

As to the straight, unadorned croissant, it seems that two aspects of Ms Lauffenburger’s behaviour truly annoyed video viewers: first, that she dipped the croissant in cappuccino. This appalling drink, overblown and blowsy, accentuates a croissant’s sweetness. You need proper, un-milked coffee – somewhat bitter - to contrast with the butteriness. Or so it is said.

Secondly, she handled her croissant whole. In croissant circles, this is as much a no-no as cutting the thing with a knife. You must gently tear it apart with your fingers and then dunk the bits in your coffee – for just long enough. Longer, and they fall in, creating sludge.

What we don’t learn from the video is whether Ms Lauffenburger’s croissant was warmed through first. This is a good idea, to enhance the contrast between the crisper outside and pillowy interior and get the best of the flaky richness. It is also sensible to lean over the table while tearing and eating the croissant, for both processes produce clouds of debris unseen since the Blitz. Ordinary people’s shirts, blouses, skirts and trousers may get covered inches thick in crumbs – though, happily, Ms Lauffenburger’s rather lovely check jacket remains pristine.

I trust all this has put worried minds at rest. It matters both greatly and not at all. At some future stage, we must also broach the associated, highly charged topic of whether a pain au chocolat is called a “pain au chocolat” or a “chocolatine”. French people get emotional about this. In essence, it seems to be “chocolatine” in the great south-west (from La Rochelle in an arc down to Perpignan) and “pain au chocolat” everywhere else. But put on your tin hat if ever called upon to discuss the subject. That said, all French people seem to agree that the “pain au chococake” apparently devised by a British chef (it’s a chocolate cake with pains au chocolat stuck in the top) requires removal by the emergency services. We’ll await Ms Lauffenburger’s more measured verdict and, in the interim, return to Covid, Brexit and other frivolities.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting