Marie Antoinette’s unsung legacy to French food: the croissant

If you watched Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, you know that the Queen liked to be surrounded by pyramids of gorgeous pastries and followed a strict macaroon-and-champagne diet. Or did she?

Marie Antoinette van Meytens

Marie Antoinette van Meytens

Well, according to contemporary accounts, not at all. The etiquette required the King and Queen to take some of their meals in public, in front of the courtiers and visitors. Anyone decently dressed was admitted in Versailles, and many came to the Palace to watch the royal couple eat.

The Marquise de La Tour du Pin, who was a lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, attended those occasions. She notes in her Memoirs that “the King ate with a hearty appetite, but the Queen did not remove her gloves, nor did she unfold her napkin, in which she was very ill-advised.”

Marie Antoinette cup

Marie Antoinette porcelain cup

Marie-Antoinette literally did not touch her food. This attitude was construed as a mark of contempt for the assembly. The Queen thus unwittingly reinforced her image as a distant, haughty woman.

But those were the meals she took – or rather did not take – in public. Did Marie-Antoinette enjoy food in a more private setting? Let us listen to what Madame Campan, her First Chambermaid, says in this regard:

“[Marie-Antoinette] usually ate nothing but roast or boiled poultry and drank nothing but water. The only things of which she was particularly fond were her morning coffee and a sort of bread to which she had grown accustomed during her childhood in Vienna.”

So Marie-Antoinette, for breakfast, her most intimate, pleasurable food moment, preferred coffee. And what is Madame Campan referring to when she speaks of that sort of bread? Well, croissants, of course!

croissant

croissant

Croissants were first made by a the bakers of Vienna to celebrate a victory against the Turkish armies that had been besieging the city. Some say that a baker, up by necessity in the middle of the night, sounded the alarm when he heard the military preparations for the attack, but this story is not attested. What is sure is that the croissant recalled the crescent, symbol of Islam, featured on the Turkish flags. The new crescent-shaped bread became immediately popular in Vienna.

It is only natural that, when Marie-Antoinette arrived n Versailles as a bride of fourteen, she came to consider the croissants of her childhood as what we would call “comfort food.” The fashion spread and croissants became popular in France as well. To this day, in French bakeries, croissants and similar products are called to this day viennoiseries, or Viennese breads. Please note, however, that the current fluffy croissant dough dates from the late 19th century.

Let them eat cake, a phrase Marie-Antoinette never said, is still wrongly attributed to her, while few give her credit for bringing croissants to France.

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23 Comments to “Marie Antoinette’s unsung legacy to French food: the croissant”

  1. Yes, Catherine, that is one of the many things that annoyed me about that film is all the pastries, when it is recorded that the Queen are sparingly. They even show her eating sweets while receiving Count Mercy. As if she would have done such a thing…..

  2. Kim says:

    What an interesting and enjoyable website you have! We just visited Versailles for the fourth time the other day. I enjoy it more each time I go, as I learn more and more about French history. Your site would make great reading for anyone considering a visit.
    I recently wrote my little bit about viennoiserie if anyone is interested in what other pastries are included in this category.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you so much, Kim! I want to return to Versailles myself, while the summer “Grandes Eaux” are on. I checked and recommend your great “viennoiserie” post. Here is the link:

    http://www.easy-french-food.com/french-croissants.html

  4. Catherine Delors says:

    And, Elena, what was most misleading was that the whole thing was supposed to be based on a work of non-fiction. I am afraid many people now picture Marie-Antoinette looking and acting like Kirsten Dunst…

  5. Eva says:

    That’s so interesting about croissants!

    I saw the film, and I figured it was nothing like real life; more Sofia Coppala’s dream world projected on to a historical figure. Glad to know I was right! In general, it seems like historical films don’t really worry about accuracy-did you see Elizabeth the Golden Age? My mom and I watched it together, and we kept going “Ummm, that’s not how it was, was it?” lol It inspired me to get a biography of Mary Queen of Scots!

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Agreed about historical accuracy in film, Eva! I don’t know whether this Elizabeth was the same thing I saw on British telly last Fall, but guess what: the bad girl was Marie de Guise, of course, the (French) mother of Mary Queen of Scots. Your reaction was exactly the right one.

  7. Kirsten Ann Hansen says:

    I am so glad to find this web site! I am a fan of

    French women, (my nickname is Coco ), and of Nancy

    Mitford as well. Shortly I will be a fan of Catherine
    Delors as well as Catherine Texier.

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Thank you, Kirsten Ann, and welcome to Versailles and more!

  9. Actually, pretty as the myth is, the best one can say is that she MAY have eaten kipfel (the ancestor of the croissant) in France. But, having discovered that the croissant is not mentioned as a bread or pastry until the middle of the nineteenth century, I kept digging and discovered that an Austrian did indeed bring the kipfel to Paris, but in 1839. August Zang was an artillery officer whose Boulangerie Viennoise became wildly popular, so that French imitators soon sprang up and the French name the kipfel for its crescent (croissant) shape.

    Zang didn’t exactly clamor for credit – in 1848 he went back to Austria and founded Die Presse, which still (after some interruptions) exists today. He may in fact have tried to get his name taken off the bakery. (I wouldn’t be surprised too if he had put the Marie-Antoinette story about, though I’ve seen no reference to that.)

    The kipfel itself existed in Austria many centuries before the siege which is so often credited with prompting its invention.

  10. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks for all the details, Jim!

  11. Clarice says:

    Bonjour Madame,
    I returned yesterday from France and i find your blog by accident and its with one things nice. Not really new information for me in personal, but nice. And yes sadly the Coppola movies let many many people believe what it shows about MA. And that where these movie have more than 30 mistakes. Eg., like that Count de Provonce get in there children… However sadly there is one thing i really didn´t like on these blog is that you trust a lot in the dairy of Mme Campan. Cause the information of her view is not really always the truth about MA. She lived in her Illusion like many other too, which hoped to get any good advantages eg.. I would be very careful with “letters” of MA´s ladies in waiting and court ladies. Also the article of Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Cause one of my very best french friends studie (like me) french history to become a teacher and one of the biggest fans of Vigee-Lebrun had read to me, that she really admire her skin cause of the color, yes, but that she actually just did the job for her family. And that MA had a terrible forehead. To large and unfavourable. Thats why the gave her the advice to draw her with an hat on the one with the white muslin dress. MA wasn´t really beautiful in that way, but the rank of to be queen made it. It was maybe not right to forejudge at the beginning when she arrived France, but for that their were a lot of reasons in the french history. And after when they called her “Madame Deficit + La Chienne” well… Nothing can be created out of nothing. She was defi. the wrong person for to be the queen of France! And for the king. I wish Louis XVI. could had choose a wife like his mother was or his grandmother. And his mother wished for him too.

    So i will stopping by from time to time. ;)
    Clarice

  12. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks for visiting, Clarice, and your thoughtful comments.

    Regarding Madame Campan, I often quote her, but I also at times take her statements with a grain of salt (see for instance my series on the daughters of Louis XV, where I question her judgment on some of the princesses.) She is an indispensable witness but indeed she is not always reliable. She may exaggerate, or be blinded by prejudice when she likes, or does not like someone. I am careful to point this out whenever I think it is the case. However, as for the breakfast habits of the Queen, I see no reason not to trust her.

    As for Madame Vigee-Lebrun, I also agree that her portraits of Marie-Antoinette were idealized. That’s why the best likeness of the Queen may be that painted by the Swedish artist Wertmuller, as pointed out in a prior post:
    http://blog.catherinedelors.com/2008/07/28/marieantoinettes-best-likeness.aspx

     

  13. I certainly agree re: Mme. Campan. It is important thought to note that in regard to the croissant she never says exactly which bread MA ate. There’s a good chance it was the kaisersemmel (Americans know a much cruder version of this as the Kaiser roll), which later became the pain viennois in France. That is the bread that was always considered the pinnacle of Viennese bread-making (itself the pinnacle of European bread-making). (Having researched the croissant and now the baguette, I know way more about all this than a healthy person should).

    I love the portrait which I find far more credible, fond as I am of Vigee-Lebrun in general. V-L did say that MA had a skin quality that no one ever captured. But one might almost mistake the Swedish portrait for one of her formidable mother.

  14. Catherine Delors says:

  15. Clarice says:

    Dear Catherine,
    My pleasure. And no, i guess on these lil fact of Mme.Campan is nothing bad, if its right, of course. But as said, i don´t trust in Mme Campan. Even if she was almost all the time on MA´s site. You know the way of “publicities” and for to show the queen in the best light. More than she really deserved. Best example was eg Count de Mercy with his letter to her mother. He showed Louis weak, stupid etc in his letters, he started he rumor of Louis XVI. phimosis which MA very strongly supported.(Eg in the Gemeinschaft der Königin).
    And well even if you say you would be carful, you don´t like it seems, except of the points with the daughters of Louis XV.. At least not in the case MA herself. Cause when i look through your blog you traust almost all the time in her. But maybe i´m wrong. ;) Its just my opinion. :)

    For the portrait, well, i didn´t mean that the paintings are idealized in that way… VL is one of the best artist in the 18th. century. And actually she is one of the very rare people which drew MA in a real realitsic way. Her work is good, but i don´t think MA was pretty. And the picture of Wertmüller is well made, but here its the same. As said, they wants to see her like the most beautiful woman cause she was queen. If MA would be a simply woman from the folk, nobody would ever noted her. For me, Maria Josepha von Sachsen and Marie Leszczyńska were much more pretty. And Leszczyńska was the best queen which should get more attention in my opinion. And sadly Marie Josepha never got the chance for to be it.

    For MA skin… Its funny cause when she was young (eg 14) she had great problems with it. She had some strong “scars” cause of her acne. Thats why Louis XV. wanted eg. a new picture of her, than the one he got first of MA from Austria. Actualy he wanted to merry by himself a daughter of the empress, but sadly just MA was available, cause her sister was to “deformed” and he was to much “afraid” for a new marriage. And for the first meeting they powdered her face very strong to cover it. However…i don´t think that her skin become later so much better that everything of that was totally heals.

    Greetings
    Clarice

  16. Here’s an accidental find from the Journal de l’enseignement ["puis" de l'enseignement primaire... ] 9-28-1885, page 4041 (!), in regard to the Universal Exposition: ‘The illustrious Vienna bread which is made before the visitors to the Exposition is made with the finest, the purest and the whitest of flours. Brought into fashion, at the Petit-Trianon, by Marie-Antoinette, it is a queen’s bread which later, in the Temple, was to become a bread of captivity.”

    I confess to several doubts on this, since I have yet to find any period mention of Marie-Antoinette introducing any breadstuff, not to mention I have trouble envisioning the Revolutionaries having a roll especially made for their captives. But the ‘pain viennois’ in question here is, once again, the kaisersemml, not the croissant (kipfel).

    L’illustre pain viennois que l’on confectionne devant les visiteurs de l’Exposition se prépare avec la plus fine, la plus pure et la plus blanche des farines. Mis à la mode, au Petit-Trianon, par Marie-Antoinette, c’est un pain de reine qui, plus tard, au Temple, devait se changer en pain de capti-
    vité.

  17. Catherine Delors says:

    I agree, Jim, the statement is too neat to sound right. And true, no one went out of their way for the food served to the captives in the Temple. Madame Royale recounts that her mother had to drink river water, which made her sick. No wonder.
    http://www.thedebutanteball.com/?p=913

  18. I have long been a fan and writer of all things Marie Antoinette and I found your blog quite charming and informative. Thank you. I look forward to visiting often.

  19. monica says:

    I haven’t read anything about Marie Antoinette having a baker from Vienna make her bread although her sister in Parma did. But it seems that kipfel was a staple in the imperial table — it was what the Viennese baker made especially for her sister, Maria Amalia in Parma for decades until the Napoleon invaded Italy in 1796.

  20. Beth says:

    I find it interesting that the royal family was treated to feasts like they were accustomed to while they lived in the Tuileries. I was just reading Marie Antoinette: The Journey, and in her book Fraser says that while drinking from the Seine water was paramount to a death sentence, the family was still given fresh “spring water” and were not served Seine water. I don’t have the page numbers of Fraser’s book where these sources are located.

    Was Antoinette given Seine water while she was in prison???

    I find Marie Therese’s life story account incredibly sad. That poor girl. We can’t even begin to imagine what Louis Charles and Marie Therese had to endure as children.

  21. Elena says:

    You have a lot of info for my prject on her