Saturday, September 20, 2008


Years ago, back in the 1960’s and ’70’s, there was an SF Chronicle columnist named Charles McCabe. I remember a particular column of his that must have been from the late ’70’s. I can’t locate it now, but think I still recall much of it.

McCabe was staying at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong on the Kowloon side. (I had had tea there in October, 1977; so I think the column was written sometime after that.) Anyway, McCabe had breakfast brought up to his room. He remarked that there was a copy of the London Times, a single red rose in a bud vase, a pot of strong French roast coffee, and.... a perfect croissant. The column went on to discuss the glories and origin of that marvelous breakfast pastry.

It goes back to the second Turkish invasion of Vienna in 1683. (The first invasion in 1529 was conducted personally by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. But after a siege of several weeks, he retreated without capturing the city because of illness and approaching winter. Legend is that coffee was introduced to Europe when the Turkish forces— in their rushed retreat— left whole and ground coffee beans behind with their provisions.)

Anyway, our tale deals with the second Turkish invasion in 1683 (when Charles II was King of England, and Louis XIV, master of Europe).

According to Wikipedia: The large-scale battle was won by Polish-Austrian-German forces led by King of Poland Jan III Sobieski against the Ottoman Empire army commanded by Grand Vizier Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha.

The siege itself began on 14 July 1683, by the Ottoman Empire army of approximately 90,000 men. The besieging force was composed of 60 ortas of Jannisaries (12,000 men paper strength) with an observation army of c.70,000 men watching the countryside. The decisive battle took place on 12 September, after the united relief army of 84,450 men had arrived.

McCabe related that the Turks attempted to undermine the walls around Vienna by digging a tunnel and planting explosives before the arrival of the relief army commanded by Polish King Jan Sobieski. (The wall was where the Ringstrasse is today in modern Vienna.)

According to McCabe, some Viennese bakers had their ovens inside the walls, and heard the Turks’ tunneling. After the bakers warned the military authorities, the Viennese dug a counter tunnel and confronted the Turks and bought time for Sobieski’s arrival to save the day.

In commemoration of the event, the bakers created a new pastry in the shape of a Turkish crescent. So why is a Viennese pastry considered quintesessentially French today? Well, when Marie Antoinette became Dauphine of France, she brought along her favorite Viennese pastry chef, who introduced the croissant to France and from there to the world.

According to another legend, even the origin of the bagel can be traced to the same battle. Supposedly the shape of the bagel commemorates the styrrups of King Jan Sobieski’s cavalry. Imagine that: two staples of modern breakfast originating from the same event!

The Austrians, Germans and Russians should have remembered and have been very grateful to Jan Sobieski. Perhaps they were— even as they partitioned Poland the following century.

When my brother Sherry (Sheridan) worked at the embassy in Paris in the early 1980’s, I visited him over my birthday. Just before returning to San Francisco, my sister-in-law Sallie helped me buy ten fresh, out-of-the-oven, croissants from a bakery near their apartment in the Place du Pantheon. We carefully wrapped them in slightly damp paper towels and plastic wrap, and I delivered them to my flat-mates and co-workers the next morning. Fresh croissants from Paris! But not quite – you really must eat croissants within a few hours – and to my thinking, there is no finer morning pastry.

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Titian in the Frari (Venezia)