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Coffee and croissants

the perfect partnership

By Jennifer Stern

, |

Coffee and croissants

the perfect partnership

By Jennifer Stern

, |

3 min read

There’s no better way to start a morning than with a croissant and coffee – and that’s not just because, as Bridget Jones says, ‘started having hazelnut pastry and chocolate croissant every morning, and lost loads of weight. So will have cappuccino and croissant as usual.’

No, it’s because coffee and croissants are the fraternal twins that fuelled the café culture of Europe and, subsequently, the rest of the world.

Origins of coffee

Okay, look. The bit about tree-climbing goats eating coffee berries and dancing around the fire is almost certainly apocryphal, but coffee consumption basically started in Yemen, with beans imported from Ethiopia, and was carried to other parts of the region by mystic Sufis who fuelled their all-night whirling dervish dances with strong, bitter coffee. By the 17th century, the brew was well established all over the Muslim world.

The Battle of Vienna

In 1683, Vienna was besieged by the Ottoman Empire, and things looked bleak. But Polish polyglot Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, who had worked as a translator for the Austrian Embassy in Istanbul, snuck out of Vienna. Cunningly disguised, and using his language skills and cultural knowledge, he blended with Turks, weaving his way through their ranks until he reached the Polish king, Jan III Sobieski, to ask for assistance. He then snuck back to Vienna, still dressed as an Ottoman and speaking fluent Turkish, and assured the Viennese that ‘the cavalry was on its way.’

On 12 September 1683, Sobieski’s forces arrived and helped the Austrians break the siege. The Turks retreated so hastily that they left behind vast amounts of equipment and supplies – including lots of green coffee beans.

When Kulczycki, who – remember – had spent lots of time in Muslim countries, was offered his pick of the loot as a reward for services rendered, he chose the bags of inedible beans that the Viennese assumed were camel fodder. Thus supplied, he opened the first coffee shop in Vienna. And – Bridget Jones would be pleased to know – he conceded to European tastes by adding sugar and steamed milk to his brew, something the Turks would never have considered. The resulting drink, which with some imagination could resemble a cappuccino, was called Wiener melange.

Somewhat sinister symbol of victory

At about the same time, Viennese confectioners, in a flurry of jingoism, started rolling rich buttery choux pastry into crescent shapes so that patriotic Austrians could crush them between their teeth, ripping them apart to fall in buttery flakes on crisp white linen – and, yes, usually served with Wiener melange in Kulczycki’s Blue Bottle Coffee Shop.

Let them eat croissants

But, hey, you may think, croissants are French, aren’t they? Yup. About as French as Marie Antoinette, who – you may recall – was Austrian. When she married Louis-Auguste, who later became Louis XVI, the last king of France, she brought the croissant with her. In France, it’s one of the pastries that, collectively, are called Viennoiseries, possibly in her honour.

Perhaps it was the croissant to which she was referring when she suggested that breadless peasants ‘eat cake’. That story is about as likely as the rest of these legends that, while entertaining and certainly holding a crumb (a buttery, flaky crumb) of credibility, are almost certain to have been creatively embellished over the centuries.

What the hell – make mine a tall double shot, and I’ll have a chocolate croissant to go with it. Just to keep Bridget company, and to honour Marie Antoinette and Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, who – incidentally – is celebrated in Vienna as the patron saint of coffee houses.

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