Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 7 February 2009

Dot Wordsworth enjoys a croissant

While my husband was at a conference among the ancient surgical props of Padua, I took Veronica to Venice, to take her mind off the recession and Justin (who embodies it). At station buffets, the Italians have a funny way of making you pay before even ordering the goods (which would have precluded comment on the rock cakes in Brief Encounter).

I said: ‘Un croissant’. The woman at the till said: ‘Una brioche’. Well, I have since discovered that there is a word croissant in Italian, and indeed a word cornetto with the same meaning. But she was quite right: they call croissants brioches.

This is a deep question of semantics. In Spanish there is a word cruasan that answers to the breakfast pastry with the moonish shape. It is not, once bitten, quite what the French would call a croissant, because the mixture used to make it is more like a bun dough than flaky pastry. Neither kind are made of the material that the French call brioche, which is a buttery, sweet bread, as we all know. But the Italians won’t have it.

People say that croissants were invented after the defeat of the Turks at Budapest in 1686, or at Vienna in 1683. A likely story. Whatever their origins, no one writing in English mentioned them until 1899 (and then in a French context). But at least the Turks did have the crescent as an emblem. The Oxford English Dictionary gets quite admonitory about the use of crescent with reference to Islamic cultures: ‘The attribution of the crescent by modern writers to the Saracens of Crusading times and the Moors of Spain is a historical and chronological error.’

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