Who Really Invented Puff Pastry? (Part 1)

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Puff pastry isn’t JUST for croissants. Arguably, it’s the foundation of many, many pastries as we know them today. It’s a technique that lets you enjoy warm, flaky layers of dough instead of literally everything being a biscuit.

But if you Google “Who invented puff pastry?” right now, the answer you get is Claudius Gele. And that’s SUPER wrong. Like, wildly wrong. Because Claudius Gele didn’t exist.

Insisting that a dead white guy didn’t invent puff pastry might seem like yelling at a cloud. Who cares, right? Isn’t that just…croissant dough? Dressler, we have bigger fish to fry here.

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Look at these LAYERS. //Rebeca Siegel, Flickr Creative Commons

But here’s the thing–puff pastry is a majorly important technique, not a one-off party trick. We see it in bakeries, coffee shops, store-bought dough. It’s a huge part of our culinary landscape, so whoever pioneered the technique has influenced the way we eat today to a mind-boggling degree.

How in the world did a technique like this get so badly misattributed? And who is ACTUALLY responsible for that happy little pain au chocolat you’re eating while you read this at a cafe?

Part 1/4: In which a French man named Claude Lorrain might have briefly been a pastrycook’s apprentice.

People say (incorrectly) that Claudius Gele invented puff pastry in 17th-century France, as an apprentice to a pastry chef. If you start digging, it seems like this myth popped up online about 15 years ago–but it actually goes back further.

The “Claudius Gele” story is twinned up with a much older myth–the legend that famous painter Claude Lorrain (also known as Le Lorrain in some circles) invented puff pastry.

This is also almost definitely false.

Basically, Claude Lorrain might have been an apprentice to a pastrycook as a kid, but that’s even a little shaky. In a biography from 1887, the author lists two wildly different accounts of Lorrain’s early life.

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“I’m Claude Lorrain, and perhaps I baked some things once.”

The tellers of both accounts agree on one main point–that Claude was an apprentice to someone at a fairly young age, and then at some point ended up in Rome, on the doorstep of Agostino Tassi, a fucking giant creep (see note) and a Perugian landscape painter.

But from there, the paths diverge pretty sharply.

Claude Lorraine’s Early Life, Version 1

Joachim von Sandrart, an artist and Claude’s extremely close friend, based on the way Sandrart fawns over him in his encyclopedic “Teutsche Academie,” tells the pastrycook story.

That (paraphrased) account tells of a young Claude Lorrain who just didn’t click with school at all. He wasn’t improving in the least, so his parents plucked him out and had him apprentice to a pastrycook. Years later, he left for Rome with a bunch of pastrycook friends, but couldn’t get a job in a bakery because he couldn’t speak Italian.

Agostino Tassi, the aforementioned creep, hired him “to grind his colors, and to do all the household drudgery.” There’s some speculation that “household drudgery” included cooking, but it appears pastries kind of fell by the wayside.

NOTE: In 1612, Tassi raped a previous apprentice, Artemisia Gentileschi. (Details of the trial are here, but serious trigger warnings for graphic details.) She is an art-historical badass. I’d go on about her more if this were an art history blog, but it’s NOT, so read her Wikipedia page and the links in the biography.

800px-artemisia_gentileschi_-_giuditta_decapita_oloferne_-_google_art_project-adjust
Judith Beheading Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi

Claude Lorraine’s Early Life, Version 2

The other account is from Filippo Baldinucci, who got his info from Lorrain’s grand-nephew–included in his ‘Notizie de’ professori del disegno.’ And THIS account makes no mention of pastry-cooking at all, but says instead that he got to Tassi’s door via a relative who worked as a lace merchant.

After that, the accounts link back up–Claude Lorrain became a world-renowned landscape painter. Sandrart was totally into his paintings. The 1830 Edinburgh Encyclopedia describes him as a “genius”–and then also adds that his one apparent flaw was with “the figures, which are positively lumpish and bad, and not unlike the productions of his first profession.

Daaaaaaang, Claude, you need some ice for that burn?

(Emphasis mine.)

a_view_of_the_roman_campagna_from_tivoli2c_evening_281644-5293b_claude_gellc3a9e2c_called_le_lorrain
To be fair, the people don’t seem super “lumpish” or “bad” here.

So, okay. Even if he WAS a pastrycook’s apprentice at some point, it doesn’t sound like he was a world-class one. Which is okay. You’re a world-class landscape painter! You don’t need BOTH.

Part 2/4: In which, despite everything we just went over, everyone decides that Claude Lorrain DEFINITELY invented puff pastry.

It’s a little unclear how, exactly, this myth picked up steam.

Charles H. Caffin’s 1915 book How to Look at Pictures says exactly what was in the last section–that he might have been apprenticed to a pastry cook as a child.

But then a 1923 French periodical claims Claude Lorrain as the inventor of puff-pastry (feuilletage in French).

A 1933 book hops back off the rumor train and calls the idea that Lorrain was ever a pastry cook “a doubtful tradition,” but then more sources (1975 New Yorker, 1984 magazine article, 1986 book) start jumping back on board with the (mis)attribution. None of them are hard-and-fast, but they say things like the invention of puff pastry is “generally attributed” to Claude Lorrain.

(This is my personal opinion, but in some ways, these “general attributions” seem like they do a surprising amount of harm because it takes all the fact-checking burden off the writer while continuing to spread misinformation.)

This groundless attribution continues in kind of a low-grade way until 2001, when everything changes…because of a typo.

Part 3/4: In which Claude Lorrain becomes Claudius Gele.

So if you’ve been clicking on the links as we go along, you might have figured out the Big Twist already. Claude Lorrain’s birth name was actually Claude Gelee.

harlaching_st-_anna_lorrain
I’m not totally sure why this is in German.

And on one sunny March day in 2001, The Kitchen Project posted an article about puff pastry that seems to be the seed for a whole new crop of untruth.

This is my hunch–that Claudius Gele is a typo, born out of the mythos surrounding Claude Lorrain/Gelee. And it’s not a totally-out-there typo! Aside from the very-close Gele/Gelee part of the name, Claude’s friend Sandrart refers to him (in German) as “Claude Gilli,” which got translated into “Claudius Gillius” in the Latin version of his encyclopedia.

But it’s still just a typo. And not that Claude Lorrain’s so-called puff pastry expertise had any basis in history, but the Claudius Gele story has even less credence. But it does seem very confidently made up, which is probably why it caught on. Confidence, people!

The entire Claudius Gele story, if you’re curious:

In 1645, a (presumably young) man named Claudius Gele took on an apprenticeship with a French pastry cook (unnamed). At the time, Claudius’s father was sick, and had been instructed to only eat a diet of flour, water, and butter.

Claudius wanted to bake something special for his sick father that met his dietary requirements, and so he (accidentally, in some versions of the story) mixed together the flour and water and folded the dough around the butter. And then rolled it out, and refolded it, and refolded it again, creating a laminated dough.

His pastry master/boss/chef said “NO! Don’t put that in the oven! All the butter’s going to run out of the bread!”

But Claudius did it anyway, and both he and his unnamed boss-person were AMAZED and DELIGHTED at the puffy, buttery bread that came out of the oven. (No comment from Claudius’s father.)

After his internship, Claudius took his Amazing and Groundbreaking Recipe to Rosabau Patisserie in Paris, where he made them piles of money. Then, he left for Florence, where he worked at the Mosca Brothers Bakery, and made them piles of money–but the Mosca Brothers took credit for the recipe. Alas!

Despite having his recipe stolen (??), Claudius died in 1682, a “highly regarded artist.”

Fin

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Croissants, for a visual break//Begemot, Flickr Creative Commons

Intermission: Here are all the things that don’t add up with that Claudius Gele story.

Aside from the fact that clearly Claudius Gele is not a real person, and that there’s not even solid undisputed evidence that the person he was based on (if you can call it that) was ever a pastrycook’s apprentice, this story’s pretty silly.

I mean, look, I love a good story as much as the next person, but there’s so much about this story that makes zero sense.

Plot-wise, the characters are a little shaky. Why doesn’t the pastry cook get a name, and what was his go-to pastry strategy that eschewed butter? Why is Claudius’s sick father brought in and never mentioned again?

And then it’s kind of a slapdash sort-of underdog story.

Claudius is told a grand total of One Time not to bake this weird bread, but he bakes it anyway, and it’s immediately a success! And he goes on to be wildly successful in two other bakeries! But then his recipe is stolen…but this is never mentioned again, and there are are no consequences because he dies a success!

Like, come on–either he has to struggle for decades and then dies a success, or he’s successful early on, gets his recipe stolen, and dies in anonymity. It’s basic story mechanics.

Also, for what disease would a diet of flour, butter, and water be recommended? Yeah, I know weird medical remedies have always been a thing, but this is a weird detail to include and then not justify/expand on.

This story also doesn’t seem to be perpetuated by either Rosabau Patisserie OR the Mosca Brothers Bakery. (In fact, on a first look, neither of these bakeries appear to have existed independently of Claudius Gele.)

Also, duh, none of this is cited. No historical records of 17th-century Parisian bakeries, or Florentine bakeries, or parish records of Claudius Gele’s death in 1682.

The only thing that lines up with Claude Lorrain is the ending–Claude Lorrain did indeed die in 1682 as a highly regarded artist. So, good job.

Part 4/4: In which the Claudius Gele myth spreads like wildfire.

Or more accurately, like a campfire that takes a minute to get going.

So this story appeared ONCE. Once, on the Kitchen Project, in 2001. It got copied onto another blog a year later, in 2002. Then things were pretty quiet for the next five years…but in 2007, the wonders of copy-and-paste really started to kick in.

From Norwegian Wikipedia, to food-and-food-history blogs, Claudius Gele skated through the internet and eventually started making his way into books.

Accidental Chef off-handedly says that puff pastry is made the same way today as “when it was invented in 1646 by French pastry cook Claudius Gele.” The Sausage Cookbook Bible says in a sidenote for a puff-pastry-sausage dish that “By lore, puff pastry was invented in the seventeenth century in Paris by a bakery apprentice named Claudius Gele.”

I genuinely love that; by lore. Hey everyone, what’s the limit on “lore” here? Is 16 years long enough?

 

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“By lore, if you copy-and-paste the Facebook Privacy Statement onto your wall, they don’t own your content.”

 

And then in 2015, “The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets,” a near-encyclopedia on baking, muddies the waters a little bit. It calls the origins of French puff pastry “controversial,” and then lists the Claudius Gele myth alongside the Claude Lorrain myth, but treats them like distinct-and-totally-unconnected people:

“According to one story, a French pastry cook’s apprentice named Claudius Gele invented puff pastry in 1645, inspired by the diet of flour, butter, and water that his sick father was ordered to follow. An even more improbable tale ascribes that same discovery to the baroque French painter Claude Lorrain. Whether this technique was invented independently in France or developed out of the Arabic approach is difficult to verify…Whatever its origins, the idea of layering or laminating fat, most commonly butter, into a dough of flour and water…has become a staple of the pastry kitchen throughout the region.” —The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, page 508

I know it’s difficult to verify, but the way this paragraph is structured gives equal weight to all possibilities. Phrases like “even more improbable” and “difficult to verify” don’t do enough to counteract the rest of the paragraph, which gives the reader an easy either-or to fall into.

“EITHER it was invented by Claudius Gele, OR Claude Lorrain, OR it developed out of an Arabic pastry tradition, but who could say? Oh, and also, this technique is now a staple of the pastry kitchen.”

Two more reputable sources–AZCentral and Cook’s Science–also do this hedging, where it almost-accidentally lends a little truth to the myth (because they’re reputable sources mentioning this myth and not explicitly disagreeing with it).

And now, dear reader, in these trying times, Claudius Gele is even enthusiastically mentioned to advertise Culinary Tours‘ Gorgonzola Puffs with Caramelized Onions. When will the madness end? (Though hey, those puffs do look tasty.)

 

So why has this story stuck around?

And if Claudius Gele didn’t exist, then and Claude Lorrain almost DEFINITELY isn’t responsible, then who actually invented puff pastry?

All excellent questions. Pop over to Part 2 of this blog to get your answers…plus a recipe.

 

Featured photo: Mink Mingle//Unsplash

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