The Muslim caliphates

Coffee and croissants

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All coffee comes originally from Ethiopia where the coffee tree grows wild. From here it was imported into Yemen and drunk by Sufi mystics as a part of their religious practices. By the fourteenth-century the tree was cultivated by the Arabs and the bean exported to the rest of the Arab world from the port-city of Mocha. But it was once the Ottomans occupied the Arabian peninsula in the first part of the sixteenth-century that the habit of coffee drinking really took off. The first coffee-shop opened in Istanbul in 1554, and before long sipping coffee, eating cakes and socializing became a fashionable past-time. In 1583, the German botanist Leonhard Rauwulf mentioned the beverage – “black as ink, useful against numerous illnesses” – in an account from Aleppo in Syria. From the Ottoman empire the coffee-drinking habit was exported to Europe, together with the word itself. The first coffeehouses opened in Venice in 1645, in England in 1650 and in France in 1672. “Coffee” comes from the Turkish kahve, and ultimately from the Arabic qahwa.

Vienna, Austria, has its own and quite distinct café tradition. The Viennese drink their coffee with hot foamed milk and, just as in Turkey, it is served with a glass of cold water. In a Viennese Kaffeehaus it is possible to linger for hours, reading newspapers and eating pastries such as Apfelstrudel, an oblong piece of pastry filled with cooked apples. The first coffeehouse in Vienna was opened by a man called Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, a Polish officer in the Habsburg army that had helped liberate the city from the Ottoman siege of 1683. In recognition for his services, goes the story, Kulczycki was given a sack of coffee beans which the Ottomans had left behind. Since Kulczycki had spent two years as a Turkish prisoner of war, he was well acquainted with the habit and was quick to spot a business opportunity. Every year, coffeehouses in Vienna, such as Café Central and Café Prückel, used to put portraits of Kulczycki in their windows in recognition of his achievement.

There is a legend that the croissant – the flaky, crescent-shaped, pastry that French people in particular like to eat for breakfast – first was invented during the siege of Vienna. According to one account, the Ottomans were trying to tunnel into the city at night, but a group of bakers who were up early preparing their goods for the coming day, heard them and sounded the alarm. The croissant, invoking the crescent-shape so popular in Muslim countries, was invented as a way to celebrate the victory. Unfortunately, however, this story cannot be true. Baked goods in a crescent-shape – known as kipferl in German – were popular in Austria already in the thirteenth-century, and introduced to the French when a Viennese artillery officer, August Zang, opened a bakery in Paris in 1839. The kipferl was renamed croissant, “crescent,” because of its shape, and this is the name by which it has become famous around the world. The croissant has a Viennese connection, in other words, but no connection to the Ottoman siege. This has not stopped the story from spreading. In August, 2013, the Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that fundamentalist Islamic forces in the rebel-held city of Aleppo, Syria, had issued a fatwa, a religious ban, against the eating of croissants since the baked good celebrates the European victory over Muslims.