A Brief History of French Pastry

I find the history behind why we eat the foods we eat and how they originated absolutely fascinating. How were some of the most delicious and appreciated foods on our plate created and how did they evolve through time? In this post, I am going to go through the evolution of something delicate and delicious: French pastry. Macarons and croissants are almost like culinary wizardry when we think about the complex process of baking these items. But they weren’t always like that. So what is the story behind it all?

French pastry has a longer history than I would have guessed. In the year 1270, a man by the name of Régnaut-Barbo crafted the first oublies which can be considered a precursor to modern confections. Oublies translates to English as ‘wafer’ or ‘thin crisp’. While thin wafers sounds underwhelming compared to modern French pastry, these oublies must have been good because they stuck around in European culture and eventually evolved to be known as a new term: ‘confections’.

Whipped cream and éclairs

France is known for flaky pastries and creamy desserts. Whipped cream was first introduced to France somewhere between the 1500s-1600s. Desserts like éclair, which is a type of choux pastry filled with cream would begin to appear much later, probably in the 1800s. It is possible that the famous French Chef Antonin Carême first crafted the éclair, but this somewhat unclear. One thing that is certain is that French éclairs were destined for greatness. The first English print recipe for éclairs appeared in the Boston Cooking School Cookbook, which was one of the most famous early American cookbooks, and these decadent desserts still seem to instantly catch your eye when you first enter a bakery today.

Macarons

So uhh, how about those macarons? We have to talk about those. How does someone get the crazy idea to ‘hand’-whip egg whites and sugar to make those soft-crispy shells and sandwich some jam or flavored cream in-between? I was surprised to read that an early prototype of macarons was actually first crafted by Italian pastry chefs working for Queen Catherine de’Medici in France as early as the 8 thcentury. The macaron of today was not crafted until the 20 thcentury and is claimed by Pierre Desfontaines of the French Pâtisserie known as (a popular tourist destination today).

Croissants

Croissants have one of the most interesting origins and are actually a type of viennoiserie not ‘pastry’. Viennoiseries are made from yeast-leavened dough enriched with eggs, butter, and sugar, which make them extra delicious. Artfully interweaving butter and flour is what gives a croissant that flaky texture. Viennoiseries originated in Vienna, Austria and came to France in the early 1800s. The Viennese croissant probably evolved from another type of bread, the kipferl.

Exactly where these types of bread got their signature crescent shape is debated. It could be that the crescent-shaped breads of Eastern Europe were crafted as offerings to Selene, a pagan moon goddess. Alternatively, the shape may have originated when a group of Christian soldiers freed the city of Buda from Ottoman Turk occupation in 1686 and bakers celebrated the victory by baking bread in the crescent shape of the Ottoman flag. Another origin story of these breads is that Kipferl was crafted in Vienna after siege by the Ottoman Turks. While many consider these latter two explanations as ‘culinary myth’, the stories certainly add an aura of mystique to a creation as intricate and delicious as the croissant.

Tarte bourdaloue

Finally, one specific French dessert that I love baking is the tarte bourdaloue, or ‘pear tart’. Let me tell you, this dessert is a stunner on both the eyes and the stomach. Tarte bourdaloue is a variation of the almond tarte and consists of a sweet tart dough ( tarte sucre) topped with frangipane and poached pears before being baked. The tarte bourdaloue comes from Paris, more specifically, from bourdaloue street and the final product with pears was crafted in the 19 thcentury. It’s not only the combination of deep sweet and nutty flavors intermingling with the softy juicy pear that make this tart so great but it may also be how the poached pears are halved, carefully sliced and arranged over the tart to form an appearance that is somehow both rustic and sophisticated. I highly recommend trying this recipe! I usually bake this one from Smitten Kitchen and it never disappoints. Never.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the rich history behind these favorite desserts and pastries. The evolution of French pastry is an ever present reminder of how culture continually drives food and just how creative humans are when it comes to elevating food to something more than the sum of its parts. I can only hope that our present culture also sees value in preserving these great works of food and culture. If you liked this post, please share it with anyone you think would find it interesting!

Originally published at https://realfoodexplored.com on November 13, 2020.

Dr. Brandon J Eudy holds a PhD in nutritional sciences. He blogs about food, cooking, and nutrition at www.realfoodexplored.com

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