A crescent-shaped twisted story
This week is the religious Sacrifice Holiday in Turkey. As the name suggests, lambs will be sacrificed, and family feasts will be meat centric. Though the festive dishes will feature meat and offal, there will always be a place for dessert.
No holiday is ever complete without baklava in Turkey. Baklava is a sweet that many countries, especially the ones of former Ottoman lands, claim national identity. The reality is, all former Ottoman territories own baklava. Regardless of its origin, it was refined and elevated in the Ottoman court and spread throughout the empire, making its way to even rural home kitchens where it was made only for special days and festive occasions.
The origin of baklava is often an argument between nations, but it has been claimed by both Greeks and Turks. Food historian Charles Perry has an answer to this: “One piece of evidence for the Greek claim is the mention of a second-century layered sweetmeat called gastris in The Deipnosophists of Athenaeus of Naucratis, but examination of the text shows that gastris was not a pastry at all. The Turkish claim, by contrast, can produce very suggestive evidence that the nomadic Turks were making layered dough products as early as the 11th century. It is argued that baklava was the first layered pastry baked in an oven, but that the practice of making the layers of dough paper-thin was probably an innovation of the royal kitchens at Topkapı Saray in the century or so after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople.”
Perry has written several articles on the topic, needless to say, very well-received by the Turkish baklava makers, who know his name by heart. Some self-acclaimed authorities go further and try to create stories suggesting that baklava influenced strudel and had even been influential in the creation of croissants. While there is no evidence to prove this both historically and technically, they all of a sudden jump into that story related to the siege of Vienna, with no logical connection whatsoever. The Viennese connection to the croissant is an often-repeated fakelore, a made-up story that has been debunked and explained in detail by bread historian Jim Chevalier who wrote a book on the topic, titled “August Zang and the French Croissant.”
According to the Vienna story, while working late at night, or very early in the morning, in the city besieged by the Turks, a baker heard strange sounds coming from underground in the silence of the night. It turns out that the Turks were digging an underground tunnel to conquer the city. The baker, suspicious of these voices, immediately informed the authorities. The tunnel was blown up, and the Turks were defeated. They wanted to reward the baker. He got the sole right to make the moon-shaped sweet rolls referring to the crescents on the Ottoman flag, which he made to celebrate the defeat of the Turks. This story was originally believed to have taken place in Budapest (1686), and in the later version, it was said to have taken place in Vienna (1683).
At this point, the story collapses. My interpretation is that this story, which has no record and evidence, is not possible in terms of history and geography. Budapest already came under Ottoman rule after the Battle of Mohács in 1526, and the Ottoman rule continues until 1718. The geography of the city is not suitable for such a story, which has two sides as Budin and Pest. In Vienna, there is quite a distance between the point where the Ottoman armies camped and the outskirts of Vienna.
I had traveled that region with our former ambassador, Yalım Eralp. The distance between the foremost place where the Turks set up camp and Vienna is not a distance to dig a tunnel; it could well be longer than today’s Eurasia Marmaray, which connects the Asian and European sides of Istanbul. But of course, this story is attractive in terms of narration, which is why it is frequently repeated. The fact that the same author refers to two different cities of origin in two subsequent publications, saying Budapest first and then correcting it as Vienna, strengthens the argument that the story is a fabrication. The reason for this second preference must be the fashion of Viennese flavors in Paris. By the way, the claim that the croissant was a legacy left to Vienna by the Ottomans was first put forward by Alfred Gottschalk - without providing any proof and embarrassingly printed in the first edition of Larousse Gastronomique published in 1938.
The story is old. Whenever there is a victory over Muslims, a crescent pops up, pretty much like Maiden’s tower stories. Wherever there is a tower in the midst of the sea, there is a story about unfortunate lovers, a cruel father, and a tragic death of a daughter, and of course the lover as well. One of the first victorious crescent stories comes from France. It is rumored that crescent-shaped sweetbreads were made in honor of defeating the Umayyad armies in the Battle of Tours in 732. Gottschalk may have been inspired by this story.
But his story has variations. He first wrote the story relating it to Budapest and then as if related to the siege of Vienna. By the way, there are also Egyptian sources who say that the croissant originated from them. Of course, they have no story from Budapest or Vienna, but connect it to the Mamluk period and claim that the Europeans got the idea from Mamluks.
It is true that there is a group of folded pastry products in the French bakery that is called Viennoiserie. They are made by folding butter into yeast dough, especially croissant, similar to mille-feuille dough, pâte feuilletée aka puff pastry. The technique became very fashionable in Paris in the 19th century. The reason for this is a very popular bakery/patisserie named “Boulangerie Viennoise” at 92, rue de Richelieu, opened in 1839 by an Austrian named August Zang.
It is because of this bakery that the term originated. As a term, “Pâtisseries Viennoises” was used for the first time by the French writer Alphonse Daudet in the book called Le Nabab in 1877. However, the technique is not of Vienna origin. It is a technique developed in France but got its name from the posh bakery with marble counters and brass fittings, pretty much decorated in the Viennese style and owned by an Austrian. Obviously, there was a Viennese twist to the name, but it was not the technique of the dough, but more the fashion that swept Paris.
Marie Antoinette, who was originally from Vienna left her mark in the 18th century; there was a Viennese influence in Paris which probably contributed to the formation of this story. On the other hand, the first reference to the croissant was given in the book “Des Substances Alimentaires,” published in 1853. When we go with the facts, Antoinette did not have a chance to eat a single croissant which was developed much later than her tragic death in 1793, but she might well have enjoyed her “Kipferl,” another crescent or horn-shaped roll that has been in Austrian cuisine since 13th century.