“Coffee sacks and the Vienna Siege; Untrue legends we love to believe: Coffee, Croissant and Beyond” was the title of a recent talk we had with my food historian friend Dr. Özge Samancı on the occasion of an event titled “Ye, İç, Eğlen” held in Istanbul. The title of the event translates as “Eat, Drink, Be Merry,” and we were seeking a fun theme that would both amuse the audience and draw attention to fake culinary legends that are continuously being repeated even in gastronomy circles.
We deliberately chose the coffee and the croissant as both are featured in stories that bug both of us. This iconic duo reminds one of Paris almost instantly. When in Turkey, especially in the presence of self-attained so-called culinary experts, these two words trigger an array of stories that tie the roots of both to the siege of Vienna. One might naturally ask what on earth that is all about and how a failed attempt of the Ottomans to capture Vienna has to do with coffee and croissant in Paris. Well, here is the story that gets on our nerves whenever we hear their totally fake stories.
The story suggests that the coffee spread to the Western world via Vienna when several coffee sacks were left behind at the outskirts of the city by the Ottoman army after the failed attempt of the siege of Vienna. If you ask those so-called authorities about which was that Vienna siege, I’m sure most would not be able to tell the date. Actually, there are two sieges of Vienna; the first one was in 1529, which falls out of the option instantly as coffee was not even known in Istanbul then. Coffee was known to the Ottomans only after they conquered Yemen and Egypt, and according to records of Ottoman historian/chronicler Ibrahim Peçevi in 1640, the first coffeehouse in the city dates back to 1554-55. So, the first siege is out. The second siege took place in 1683, and even if the Viennese got their first taste of coffee because of those sacks left behind, they must have been following the world way behind, as they often do in regard to fashion, trends, etc. Here is a list of some coffee existence around the globe that predates Vienna’s encounter with the stuff.
In 1582 Francesco Morosini, the Venetian ambassador in Istanbul, wrote back to his town about the “black water/Acqua nera,” which Turks gather to enjoy several times a day. While the same year, German botanist Leonhard Rauwolf recorded coffee, Paduan botanist Prospero Alpini did so too in 1591. Coffee traveled to Venice in the early 1600s, followed by Marseilles in 1644, Oxford in 1650, London in 1652, and even Boston in 1670. Mind you that the Ottomans are still yet to siege Vienna. These are early appearances in actual coffee venues here and there, but there are several other mentions by Western writers and travelers. Then, there is also some adventure and drama that is far more interesting than leaving the coffee sacks behind, which is the smuggling of the coffee plant by the Dutch from the port of Mocha in Yemen in 1616, to be grown in the greenhouses in Amsterdam. Eventually, those seedlings made their way to faraway lands such as Sri Lanka, Java and Sumatra in 1658. Meanwhile, the coffee houses in London became so popular that they were called penny universities, being a hub of literary intellectual debates. At that point, the Ottomans must still be in the planning stage of their dreams about Vienna, and the Viennese must still be lacking that caffeine boost.
It is a true fact that the coffee spread to the Western world via the Ottomans that first learned about it in Yemen. Turkish coffee today is a different kind of brewing technique by heating the extremely finely ground coffee grinds and water together, where the coffee grinds remain at the bottom of the cup as sediment. Of course, many different brewing techniques were later developed around the globe. The list about these first encounters of coffee in Europe and beyond, before Vienna, are endless, but what really is disturbing about these stories is that sometimes certain dimensions are added to spice up the story, such as the Viennese saw these blackish-brown beans and thought that they must be camel feed or similar. Everybody in Turkey should know that the Ottomans would never roast the beans and put them back in the sack. The beans were always freshly roasted and freshly ground just before the coffee was brewed, and it is still a wide practice to buy freshly roasted and ground coffee from coffee shops in Turkey.
Together with Dr. Samancı, we made a fun journey about the fake stories and culinary myths that are really annoying serious food writers and historians around the globe. Coming back to the Parisian connection of coffee and croissant, I could not yet delve into the invented story of the buttery flaked pastry due to space restrictions, and I prefer to save it for next week. Of course, the croissant story is also connected to the Ottoman siege of Vienna, the good old never-ending battle of the cross and the crescent, involving a sad home-sick queen and the glory of creating fakelore. If you are curious and don’t have the patience to wait, check out Jim Chevalier’s book titled “August Zang and the French Croissant” or try to find his YouTube video on the topic, which is hilarious as he has this fed-up grumpy attitude, tired of correcting that nonsense once again.
Keep following the case next week. I have even created my own version of a fake story that may well find a place in the history of culinary imaginative writing!