A Bit On the Side

For hundreds of years, on breakfast tables across the world, a cup of coffee has been enjoyed with something sweet. But why, and when was it decided to pair the two? Hugo Harrison investigates. Photo by Honey Fangs.

In its most basic form, the daily ritual of coffee and pastry can be traced back to Vienna more than 300 years ago. Following a failed attack on the Austrian capital by the Ottoman Turks in 1683, residents came across a number of sacks containing green coffee beans. It’s thought the sacks were left by fleeing Turkish soldiers, who during the siege had become known for their daily coffee, brewed in pots over campfires following their breakfast or kahvalti – literally meaning “before coffee”.

It was while the Turks were besieging Vienna that perhaps the most commonly documented accompaniment to coffee, the croissant, was created. The siege began in the middle of the night, as the Ottoman army dug a series of tunnels beneath Vienna’s walls as part of a plan to attack from the ground up. The city’s bakers were already awake and working, and word soon spread of strange noises coming from under the ground. The bakers alerted the military, enabling them to negate the element of surprise and stop the attack in its tracks. 

The Turkish army was defeated and the city was liberated. As a reward, the bakers gained the right to sell a product of their choice to the citizens of Vienna at a premium price. They created an indulgent pastry, rich in butter and twisted into the crescent they had seen on the battle flags of their Ottoman enemies. 

A short time after the battle, some of Europe’s first coffee houses were opened in Vienna, one of which was the first in history to serve coffee with milk. Croissants, or kipferl as they were known locally, were served alongside the Turkish-style coffee to locals and visitors of all classes. These new community hubs became the starting point of a coffee-house movement that spread across Europe, filling the lanes of Paris, London and Rome with the rich aroma of roasting beans.

MODERN TAKE

In the countless coffee chains dotted around the UK today, both the coffee and croissants on offer are a far cry from those enjoyed in 17th-century Vienna. If you stray from the high street, you’ll find a product and context that differs again, with both baristas and bakers challenging the ties of quality, flavour and provenance that this four-centuries-old pairing holds. Third-wave coffee shops and roasters are one half of this coalition, the other being bakers whose focus on traditional techniques and ingredients earns them the title of “artisan”. 

Lance Peters is head pastry chef at Pump Street Bakery in Orford, Suffolk. He says serving speciality coffee alongside handmade viennoiserie was the most logical step for the business to take. “The link is really quality and flavour,” he says. “Our croissants are handmade using French flour and butter, creating a rich and flaky pastry. The all-consuming focus on quality at the bakery means we have to serve a coffee that matches the pastries not only in quality but in flavour too.” 

The quaint Pump Street Bakery café, which serves Monmouth seasonal espresso alongside the bakery’s pastries and brunch dishes, is just a short walk from the company’s bakehouse. The close proximity of production and retail means the baristas are able to work with the bakers to offer guidance to customers on what might best accompany their coffee. “We’re currently serving cascara from Square Mile,” says Lance. “The team at the café has created a syrup using local blackberries, which we serve over ice with sparkling water. In my view, this is perfect with one of our bear claws – a sweet croissant filled with an almond frangipane.” He’s right – the powerful hit of fruit perfectly complements the nuttiness of the frangipane, and the sweet croissant dough softens the slight tartness of the cascara. 

And it seems it’s the sweetness of pastries that lies behind why we often pair them with coffee. “Eating a sweet item while consuming coffee changes what we taste in the flavour profile of the brew, accentuating the sweet notes,” says Lani Kingston, author of How To Make Coffee. “It’s actually a recommended consumption method, rather than adding sugar, as the latter can mask the coffee flavours. Coating the tongue with sweetness and then taking a sip of unadulterated coffee is a better way of adding sweetness.”

The espresso is served with a meticulous attention to detail, with every shot pulled monitored by barista Michelle Dean. While she admits Pump Street isn’t actively pairing its coffee with its pastries, slight fluctuations in the flavour profile of the seasonal espresso mean that on some days the coffee will complement a particular product. “Some days the espresso can taste rich, dark and nutty, on others it can pack a fruity punch of sour-sweetness. Tasting regularly and speaking with Lance each morning allows us to not only monitor the quality of the product but also consider the best possible experience for our customers.”

FROM OVEN TO TABLE 

In Hackney, the links of provenance and flavour are being pushed further still. Under a railway arch, Ben Mackinnon and his team at E5 Bakehouse serve bread and pastries alongside Nude’s East espresso, a cup that’s full-bodied, sweet and nutty. Behind a simple counter of pastries and a rack of bread, customers can watch as the bakers load ovens, mix dough and toss flour. The provenance couldn’t be more transparent, with the bakery’s open layout allowing customers a clear view of their coffee and pastry order being prepared.

“We only use organic ingredients at the Bakehouse, predominantly from local producers in east London,” says Edward, one of E5’s baker. “Nude is just down the road and delivers our filter and espresso beans to us by bike and have done for the past four years. The baristas at Nude have trained many of our staff too.” 

To know that the same hands that made your croissant are preparing your cup of coffee is a sure-fire way of elevating this pairing. But what should we expect in terms of flavour? “For many of us at the Bakehouse, the ultimate breakfast is a cortado with an almond-and-poppy-seed danish,” says Edward. “The espresso’s nutty sweetness complements the rich almond custard and seeds well.”

QUALITY FIRST 

These examples of pioneering bakers and baristas are an encouraging step forwards in the way we consider both coffee and pastry together. But will they remain rarities or is this a sign of things to come? 

Luke Reene, head barista at Water Lane Coffeehouse in Canterbury, holds regular events pairing the two. He believes the issue we currently face lies with coffee as a commodity. “The fast-food model has meant that, for the most part, people don’t want questions and they don’t want exploration – they want coffee served in the same way, in the same time and at a variety of outlets.” And, he continues, until coffee becomes a respected and cared-about aspect of the dining experience, it will stay the same. 

The coffee and the croissant, and the way in which they are enjoyed together, have come a long way from their origins in a war-stricken city. It seems that the future of this pairing is down to us. If it’s to continue pushing the boundaries of quality and flavour, we need to consider it not as a commodity but as the Austrians did – a luxury that we deserve and should celebrate.