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August Zang and The Croissant: Don't Thank Him. Please.
August Zang brought the croissant to France and helped transform French baking. But if it were up to him, no one would know that.
A simple enough question, and it is often given a simple enough answer: Marie-Antoinette. But this answer is as wrong as an equally famous claim about how the pastry was invented. Many an authoritative source states that during a siege of Vienna by the Turks, bakers, working late, heard tunneling beneath the walls. They then gave the alarm, saving the city, and were rewarded by being allowed to make a bread in the shape of the Turkish crescent.
A colorful and stirring tale; but only one of the things wrong with it is the fact that the kipfel– the Austrian croissant – had already existed for hundreds of year before this. Who invented it? The truth is, no one knows.
And who brought it to France?
That we know. Yes, it was an Austrian, as it happens, but not a queen – a commoner. About fifty years after Marie-Antoinette was beheaded, August Zang, an officer from Vienna, opened a Viennese bakery – Boulangerie Viennoise – in Paris. Soon his Viennese baked goods were all the rage, though it would not be until the twentieth century that such products would be called viennoiserie. One of these was the kipfel, which French bakers named for its crescent – croissant – shape.
This alone would have earned Zang a place in baking history.
But his role in French baking goes well beyond that innovation. He introduced methods, like the steam oven, which made French bread what it is today. French bakeries, which had been clumsy and rustic, began to imitate the elegant décor of Zang's bakery, so that today tourists delight in the marble, glass and brass of nineteenth century Parisian bakeries – bakeries which were transformed under Zang's influence. Some (more doubtfully) even credit Zang with introducing the baguette.
And yet his seminal role in French baking is barely known today. Why?
Because he wanted it that way. In 1848, Zang returned to Vienna and founded a newspaper – Die Presse – which is still a major daily. He brought with him methods he had learned in France and soon had transformed the Austrian press as thoroughly as he had French baked goods. He also became very rich and prominent, even buying a castle to seal his social status.
The last thing he wanted to be known as was... a baker.
He surely would not be have been pleased then to know that in the twenty-first century, Jim Chevallier would write a book describing his impact on French baking: August Zang and the French Croissant: How Viennoiserie Came to France. This book gives some background on the kipfel before laying out Zang's own history and analyzing his considerable impact on the French baking world. The book also takes a look at how he transformed the Austrian press.
Zang would no doubt have been horrified to see this part of his life revealed. Modern readers, on the other hand – especially those with an interest in baking or in the history of the press – , have reason to rejoice that this lively and unique tale is at last being told.
August Zang and the French Croissant is available on-line at http://www.createspace.com/
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About Chez Jim Books: Chez Jim Books offers a variety of historical and reissued works, as well as original work from Jim Chevallier, who began by publishing his original monologues for actors, but has since written or edited works on historical cooking and the eighteenth century, among other topics. His monologues and articles, such as an essay on breakfast in Old Regime France, have been included in a number of collections by others. For more information, visit http://www.chezjim.com.