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Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Croissant and its History. The Croissant is France's Most Famous Pastry, but its Origins Come From Outside France.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Updated September 2017.

Un croissant - A croissant.
Photograph by courtesy of posterize through
A croissant is made from ultra-thin layers of a pâte levée feuilletée, a yeast-based puff pastry. To begin butter separates each of the thin leaves of the pastry.  When the croissant is baked some of the water in the butter turns to steam and creates the airy pastry.  For the French, a well-made croissant will have 40% or more of its weight from butter. The croissant took its name from its original shape, a crescent; today you may have a croissant in many forms.
Buying a croissant in France.
For the history of the croissant's see further down this post.
Despite all the mouth-watering croissants in French bakery windows the original croissant au beurre, the plain butter croissant, leads with a 40% market share.  The croissant au chocolat, the chocolate stuffed croissant is second in the popularity stakes, and as I was reminded, the croissant aux amandes, the almond croissant, comes a close third. The almond croissant is stuffed with almond paste and has a light covering of almond shavings on top.  

Almond Croissants.
Photograph courtesy of iferneinez.
Croissants at breakfast in France.

During the week, croissants are not, usually, on the breakfast table in French homes; it is at the weekend that the croissant rules the French breakfast table. During the week a baguette, or another French bread, with butter and jam will suffice. (For more about breakfast in France click here). Nevertheless, visitors, in most hotels, will be offered croissants along with a number of French breads at breakfast.  French cafes offer two or three different croissants at breakfast time. Later in the day cafes have a much wider choice of croissants.

Breakfast in a French cafe.
Photograph courtesy of einalem
Croissants at lunchtime.
Large stuffed croissants will be on lunchtime menus in, cafés and snack bars where they compete with sandwiches. Croissants may be stuffed with ham and cheese or more adventurous fillings, and a restaurant lunch menu may offer a stuffed croissant accompanied by French fries, chips, and a small green salad.

Croissants at lunchtime.
Photograph courtesy of roboppy.
Croissants in the afternoon
Croissants compete with other pastries for afternoon customers; then croissants will be offered in varieties unseen outside of France.

A croissant with strawberries and cream.
Photograph courtesy of Neilwill
The croissants offered may include:

Croissant à la Confiture de Lait – Croissants with dulce de leche.
Croissant au Beurre –  The original and still most popular butter

Croissant au Fromage – A croissant stuffed with cheese. The most popular cheeses with that I have seen with croissants are Gruyere, Munster, Comte, Roquefort, Camembert, and Brie.
Croissant au Jambon  - A croissant stuffed with ham. Usually, jambon blanc also called Jambon de Paris; that is a cooked ham, not cured ham.
Croissant aux Abricots – A croissant stuffed with apricots.
Croissant aux Amandes - A croissant stuffed with almond paste.
Croissant aux Chocolat -  A croissant stuffed with chocolate
Croissant aux Saumon –  A croissant stuffed with salmon.
Why the croissants of France taste better.
Outside of those cafés and supermarkets that serve mass-produced croissants, the croissants served in France always taste far better than those I have tried elsewhere.  The perfect croissants’ light and unique texture are made by rolling the pastry together with over 40% butter, by weight again and again; that is what makes a great croissant. The best patisseries use a special AOC butter, the Beurre Sec de Feuilletage AOC Poitou-Charente.  This butter is a Beurre Pâtissier especially made in thin leaves for chef pâtissiers, pastry cooks. It contains 99.8% butterfat and the smallest package weighs 1 kilo (2.2 lbs). When in France pay a little more and buy the real thing, a Croissant au Beurre, a butter croissant. You may watch your cholesterol by limiting the number of croissants that you eat; there are 180 calories in an average croissant.
The legends behind the croissant’s creation.
There are many stories about the croissant and its creation; some of these stories began over one thousand years ago, while other stories, as may be expected, include Marie-Antoinette. One of the favorite stories connects the croissant to the European wars with the Ottoman Turks; the Turkish flag includes a crescent, a croissant in French.

La Lune Croissante - The Crescent Moon.
Photograph by courtesy of Pierre J.
The real history of the French croissant.
The creator of the French croissant was neither French nor Turkish; he was an Austrian businessman, August Zang (1807 – 1888).  From a previous visit to Paris, Zang knew of the French love and admiration for Austrian cakes and pastries and saw an excellent business opportunity in selling the French genuine Austrian pastries.    Zang returned to Paris, in the late 1830’s, complete with the best Austrian pastry chefs he could entice away from Vienna, and opened a Viennese bakery in Paris at 93 Rue de Richelieu. Rather obviously, the bakery was named the Boulangerie Viennoise.  

The Boulangerie Viennoise, as it was in 1909.
Then it was owned by Philibert Jacquet.
Photograph Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
In the 1800’s the Viennese, not the French, were considered the leaders in all types of baking and pastry making, and French chefs traveled to Vienna to study with the masters. Even Antonin Carême, France’s foremost chef of the 19th century, with pastry his first love, paid his dues by visiting the leading pastry chefs of Vienna. Zang's bakery sold all types of Viennese and Austrian pastries including a traditional, tasty, crescent-shaped, Austrian pastry called a kipferl, a crescent in German.
Zang's Boulangerie Viennoise was a success and within a year had Parisians standing in line. With success comes imitation and very quickly French boulangeries and patisseries began making copies of Zang’s Austrian pastries. Those pastries included the kipferl under the name croissant, a crescent in French, and the rest is history.
How the Croissant became French.
The French bakers, as may be expected tweaked, some of the original recipes, including that of the kipferl by adding more butter. Now the croissant au beurre, the butter croissant, was on its way and has never looked back. After ten years with his very successful Boulangerie Viennoise Zang was looking for new heights to conquer.  In 1847, Austria ended newspaper censorship, and Zang saw another business opportunity as a newspaper publisher.  Zang sold his Boulangerie Viennoise to a French pâtissier and returned home to Austria. Zang went on to make millions as the founder of the Die Presse newspaper which is still in print today. Still today there is no plaque at 93 Rue de Richelieu?
A few years further on Zang would sell his newspaper and again look for new opportunities; he went on to become a banker and industrialist.  When Zhang passed on, he was buried in the Zentralfriedhof cemetery in Vienna.  His ornate tomb is today a place of pilgrimage for those who honor the man who made a gift of the croissant to France.

The tomb of August Zang in Vienna.
Photograph courtesy of find a grave added by §ĸỵнï
Without any argument, except maybe from the Viennese ,today the croissant is French.   Many French boulangeries, patisseries, cake shops, still honor the Viennese pastry chefs by noting on their storefronts that they offer Viennoiseries.   Viennoiseries are small pastries, looking somewhat similar to the Danishes in the USA, but made with puff pastry.  When walking around any town or city in France look at the wording on French boulangerie and patisserie storefronts; many of these shops also call themselves a Viennoiserie.

A boulangerie and Viennoiserie in Paris today.
Photograph by courtesy of hugovk

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Bryan G. Newman
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