One bite of a croissant just pulled from the oven at Michel Lyczak’s bakery in the southern Parisian suburb of Malakoff is bliss: a satisfying crunch and scattering of crumbs, the indulgent mouthfeel of butter wrapped in the overwhelming sensation of lightness. Few foods are as culturally iconic as this flaky breakfast food, so quintessentially French that many English speakers defer to its native pronunciation (krwa-sohn).
Yet as recently as the 19th century, the French viewed the croissant as a foreign novelty, sold only in special Viennese bakeries in the pricier parts of Paris. And how it came to France in the first place remains obscured by layer upon layer of legend.
Experts do agree that the croissant was inspired by the Austrian kipfel, a crescent-shaped baked good featuring a generous amount of butter or lard and sometimes sugar and almonds. According to popular lore, the kipfel originated in 1683 as a comestible celebration of Austrian victory over the Ottomans at the siege of Vienna. The story follows that a baker, up early to make bread, saved the city when he heard the Turks tunneling underneath the city and sounded an alarm. The kipfel’s curved shape, said to mimic the crescent moon of the Ottoman flag, then would seem to pay poetic tribute to the indomitable spirit of a city that resisted a powerful invading force. (Conveniently, another legend holds that the cappuccino was invented almost simultaneously, inspired by the strong Turkish coffee gained in the spoils of war.)
But the kipfel existed long before the Ottoman siege of Vienna. A poem mentions it as one of the Christmas treats that Viennese bakers presented to Duke Leopold in 1227. Moon-shaped breads in general date back centuries earlier.
Does the croissant’s Austrian ancestry belie its French fame? Of course not, says Jim Chevallier, an independent scholar and author of a book on croissant history.
“The croissant began as the Austrian kipfel but became French the moment people began to make it with puffed pastry, which is a French innovation,” says Chevallier. “It has fully taken root in its adopted land.” Order a kipfel in Austria or Germany today and you’ll likely be handed a crescent-shaped cookie.
Legend credits the French queen Marie Antoinette—homesick for a taste of her native Vienna—with introducing the kipfel, and thus the croissant, to France. But Chevallier sees no evidence to support this notion.
“I find this surprising,” he says, “since she received as much attention in her time as the Kardashians and Taylor Swift do today.” No references to the croissant appeared in France before approximately 1850. The historical evidence pointed instead to an Austrian entrepreneur named August Zang, who opened the first Viennese bakery in Paris in 1838, located at 92 Rue Richelieu on the Right Bank. Zang’s knack for marketing through newspaper advertising and elaborate window displays had Parisians flocking to his establishment to sample his Vienna bread, kaiser rolls, and kipfel. His patented steam oven used moist hay to give the pastries a lustrous sheen, notes Chevallier.
Zang sold his bakery a few years later, moved back to Austria, and founded the country’s first daily newspaper, amassing a fortune in the banking and mining industries. His ornate tomb in Vienna’s central cemetery makes no mention of his brief but significant foray into the baking business. But Parisians had not forgotten Zang’s scrumptious pastry—and a host of imitators sprang up. According to 19th-century French journalist Hervé de Kerohant, there were already at least a dozen “makers of Viennese bread, employing one hundred workers,” in Paris by 1840. A star was born.
Within a few decades, the newcomer was firmly entrenched as a staple of French breakfast foods. On a visit to Paris in 1872–73, Charles Dickens praised “the dainty croissant on the boudoir table” and bemoaned the comparatively “dismal monotony” of English bread and other breakfast foods.
A century later, the croissant took the fast-food industry by storm as manufacturers introduced pre-made frozen dough and takeaway “croissanteries” cropped up throughout France. The baked-goods corporation Sara Lee introduced a frozen croissant to America in 1981, which soon outpaced its famous pound cakes in sales. Burger King, Arby’s, and other fast-food chains followed with croissant breakfast sandwiches and savory stuffed croissants. As a 1984 New York Times article declared, “The Americanization of the croissant” had begun.
Perhaps in the most sincere form of flattery—or just poor culinary judgment—the croissant has morphed into almost unrecognizable American creations. At Manhattan’s Dominique Ansel Bakery customers queue up by the hundreds for a taste of Cronuts (doughnuts made with croissant dough), while at City Bakery “pretzel croissants” have a cult following. Crumbs bakery chain has launched the croissant’s most recent incarnation, the “baissant,” or bagel croissant.
“A derivative may be good, but it is not a croissant,” insists the Parisian master baker Éric Kayser, whose book The Larousse Book of Bread: Recipes to Make at Home was just published by Phaidon. “A croissant is a traditional product that has been sought after and consistently popular over the years because of its specific taste and texture. The croissant will continue to remain a best seller.”
But could the croissant become a victim of its own success in France? As many as half the croissants and other pastries sold in France’s 30,000 boulangeries—a name reserved for artisan bakeries, but only when it comes to bread—are industrially produced. Many bakeries and pastry shops are fighting against this trend, specifically advertising their wares as “fait maison,” meaning handmade, to distinguish them from their factory-made competition. A new campaign launched by a national coalition of food retailers encourages artisan bakeries and other food producers to display the slogan “Ici, c’est humain,” or “Here, it’s human.”
Michel Lyczak, the 2014 winner of the “best butter croissant” award from the Professional Chamber of Boulangers-Patissiers, makes all his croissants by hand at his tiny bakery at 68 Rue Paul Vaillant Couturier, in part, he says, because of limited space. But mostly it’s because he wants to maintain high standards.
“The secret of an excellent croissant,” says the 51-year-old, “is the quality of the ingredients: sugar, salt, flour, milk, eggs, and of course, butter.” For this last, he swears by a variety from the southwestern region of Poitou-Charentes, carefully washing it in spring water before folding it by hand into the pastry dough. He uses high-protein flour and pure, fresh milk, which, he adds, “must be cold.”
After flattening and folding the dough, he cuts it into triangles by hand, then refrigerates it for 12 hours to ferment. “If you don’t do that,” he explains, “you won’t get the layers and just end up with bread.”
Lyczak’s attention to detail has brought him mounting accolades, for not only the croissant but also the galette—the traditional cake of Epiphany—and the baguette. The best croissant award brought him a 30 percent increase in his business. He sells about a hundred croissants per day, mostly to hungry office workers in the immediate neighborhood.
He has no ambitions to build another store or create a pastry empire. “I have my niche,” he says. “I am happy as I am.”
Asked about the Cronut, he shrugs and wonders if these creations are too oily. “Better for your health to have a croissant, non?”
In a French twist on the notion of daily bread, he adds: “A little croissant every day won’t do you any harm.”
Other French Posers
Some of the most celebrated facets of France aren’t French at all. Imported from countries near and far, familiar and exotic, they have long been embraced so widely that their origins have been all but forgotten. Whether the poodle, the cancan, foie gras, or the beret, they have become part and parcel of French and Parisian identity.
That’s just the beginning. Absinthe, film noir—when it comes to French icons, some were invented elsewhere, and others evolved across cultures. But would we still find them as alluring were they not adopted and reared by the French?
King Louis XVI owned one, but the poodle was originally bred in Germany as a water dog. It was embraced by French aristocracy, eventually becoming the country’s national dog.