Tuesday, 14 January 2014

You Learn Something New Every Day

Contemporary Flag of the
Ottoman Empire, ca 1680

The Famous Viennoiserie: Le Croissant

One of the small pleasures that riding the train every day to work is the opportunity to spend thirty minutes reading, rather than gripping the steering wheel in growing frustration at the stupidity of other motorists around you (pace George Carlin).  In Paris, there is a number of "free" news sheets that are on offer in the entrances to the various Métro stations, and I usually try to grab one on the way in.  I have found this to be a way to stay in touch with the basic local and world goings-on, to brush up my language skills, as well as an enjoyable way to pass the time.

The particular news I usually read is in Direct Matin.  The writing tends to be a bit on the sensational side (e.g., yesterday, there was a report of a shooting in Paris, where the victims were described thusly: "Leurs jours ne seraient toutefois pas en danger." (their days would not be in danger).

One of the interesting features of Direct Matin is a daily section called "Pourquoi?" (why?), where a reader's question on some quotidian topic is answered.  Yesterday's question concerned the origin of the halos seen above saints in religious paintings and statues.

Today's offering asked why croissants have their distinctive shape.  The answer I found quite surprising - it turns out, the famous pastry is not French - a fact that I ought to have suspected, I guess, from the fact that they are generically referred to as Viennoiserie, a cognate most English speakers will be able to sound out.  As that name implies, the croissant has its origins in Austria, and its shape from further to the east.

As it turns out, during the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks in the seventeenth century, bakers, who work very early in the morning before dawn, apparently heard the Turks trying to undermine the city walls, and raised the alarm, helping turn back the invasion.  As an homage to the bakers and in celebration, the government authorised the new pastry, to be shaped like the crescent moon seen in the Ottoman flags.

The pastry came to France some years later, apparently, with Mary Antoinette (in France, often referred to as Marie Autriche - Marie the Austrian), who herself was a Viennese import.  Obviously, the croissant lasted longer and was more beloved than the queen, who later became associated with a rude quip about eating bread.

Another thing that was revealed is that, due to its origins, the eating of croissants is explicitly banned by many fundamentalist Islamist militants.  Seems that they know their pastries in addition to their military history.

So, enjoy a croissant and thumb your nose at the radical jihadists who, it turns out, may actually hate us for our freedom...to choose flaky pastries for breakfast.
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