Seduction By Smell

In Kipferl country, the bakers of Vienna show no mercy

The powdered-sugar Kipferl | Photo:

Walking up Mariahilfestrasse from the Museumsquartier the other day, the aromas from the nearby bakeries flooded my senses, tickling my nose and teasing my taste buds.  My mouth began to water, my stomach to growl in complaint. Croissants! You’ve likely been in Vienna long enough not to be bothered by this smell anymore; I’ve just arrived, and I’m helpless. But then again, for me this is a love of long standing.

My appreciation for baking goes back to my childhood, as my father enjoys cooking, and does it very well.  I grew up witnessing first hand how a loaf of bread is kneaded, pushed, folded and left to rise, and how a piecrust is rolled paper-thin. But it was the croissants that fascinated me most – so much loving work put into these small delicate pastries that then vanished in minutes as we gobbled them up. Cooking is an art, but making a croissant is genius!

Which explains my excitement to learn that not only is Vienna home to many wonderful bakeries, but legend holds that it is also home to the croissant, or at least the Viennese version known as the Kipferl. And while the Kipferl is plain, it still comes in various shapes. One is filled with chocolate or with any kind of jam one can ask for; the other one is plain inside and topped with powdered sugar. The croissant too, has many variations, but retains its simple crescent shape.

The Kipferl is a sort of grandfather of the croissant, with a history of almost 10 centuries and several different tales of origin. The best story is that it was created to honor the defeat of the invading Turks in the 1680s. A baker was up working in the middle of the night to prepare the bread for the morning, when he heard Turkish soldiers trying to tunnel under the city walls. He alerted the defending army, and the plan was promptly foiled.  For his reward, the baker was invited to create a special pastry to honor the event – et puis voila! –  the croissant was born.

But of course, others say it wasn’t in Vienna but in Bucharest. Or was it Paris? And why was it shaped like that?

I needed to know. So I wandered around the bakeries, talking to people, looking for answers. Some looked at me strangely; no English. Some were willing to help, but had no answer. Then I saw an older Austrian lady, wearing a brownish silk hat and a fitted jacket – you know the kind with the gray lapels and the bone buttons – I knew I had encountered the right person.

Her answer was direct. “Where do you think the croissant’s crescent form on the Turkish flag comes from?” I blushed; I hadn’t known what the Turkish flag looked like, exactly; but I didn’t let on.

And the smells were getting to me – the sweet fillings of chocolate, fruits or nuts hidden in the middle; or the various meats and cheeses treasured inside. Anything I could want or imagine. If I asked them to make me a special one with raspberries, apples and prunes, I’m sure they would have done it…

Austrian bakeries are nothing like those back home in the States – where we just have bagels and muffins and an occasional baguette. The thought of returning home to St. Louis depresses me. Smell deprivation is surely a form of abuse.

Still, I have the memories of my father, and waking up in the morning to the smell of him pulling a batch of fresh croissants from the oven.

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