PARIS — It is Frencher than the Eiffel Tower and the Seine. Millions of people carry it home every day, either under their arms or on the backs of their bicycles. Baguette is the bread that has defined French identity for decades.
The United Nations heritage agency UNESCO named Wednesday the baguette a worthy preservation item, and added it to its “intangible cultural patrimony” list.
This decision reflected more than just the skill of bread-making — it also honored a way to live that thin, crusty loaves have long represented and which has been under threat by recent economic turmoils. UNESCO made the decision at a time when boulangeries in rural areas are disappearing, hammered economically by forces such as the slow hollowing of France’s villages and the European economic crisis that has pushed baguettes’ prices higher than ever .
Dominique Anract (president of the National Federation of French Bakeries and Patisseries), who was instrumental in getting the baguette added to the UNESCO heritage listing, said, “It’s a positive news in a complex environment.”
Mr. Anract said that when a baby has to cut his teeth, his parents give him a piece of baguette to chew. “As a child grows up the first thing he does on his own is to purchase a baguette from the bakery.”
The announcement was made by a French delegation in Rabat, Morocco on Wednesday. They celebrated it in French fashion — waving baguettes, trading “la bise” and giving two kisses each to celebrate.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron responded to the news, describing the baguette in Tweet as “250g of magic and perfection” and attaching a photo of a boy beaming with a baguette, nearly as tall as he, tucked under one arm.
Although it is one of the many breads you can find in a typical Boulangerie, the baguette remains the most loved in France. According to the federation of French Bakers, more than six billion bags are sold each year for an average price around 1 euro. It had a fixed price until 1986.
For as long as anyone can recall, the baguette set the pace of French life. From the aroma of baking bread wafting through the streets at dawn to the taste of hot “tradition” as people commute home at night, the baguette was the mainstay of French life.
Many urban legends surround the creation of the baguette. Napoleon’s bakers created it to be lighter and easier to carry with them; Parisian bakers made it rippable to stop knife fights between the various factions that built the subway system. They were able to rip it apart with their naked hands and didn’t need knives to do so.
According to historians, the bread evolved slowly — in fact, elongated loaves had been made by French bakers as early as 1600. The baguette was originally considered a bread meant for wealthy Parisians, who could afford to buy it quickly. This is in contrast to the longer-lasting, heavy, round miche that can last up to a week. Bruno Laurioux, a French historian, says that the baguette only became a staple in France’s countryside after World War II.
It wasn’t the French that first tied the baguette to French identity.
“The first people to talk about the French eating baguettes — a very different bread — were tourists who arrived in Paris at the beginning of 20th century,” stated Mr. Laurioux. He was also the head of the academic committee that negotiated the baguette’s appeal to UNESCO. “It was an outsider’s view that linked the French identity to baguette.
The French have been open to it ever since, holding an annual competition in front of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris to determine the best baguette maker in the nation. The Elysee Palace is where the president lives and works, so the winner is announced with flair.
The ingredients of a baguette are four: flour water salt yeast. specialty yeasts were created to encourage the bread’s lengthy fermentation stage. Special knives are used to score the bread’s surface and create the signature golden color. Long-handled wooden paddles are used to gently take the bread out of the ovens. Most boulangeries produce more than one baguette per day.
Steven Kaplan, an American-French historian, was perhaps the most famous and dedicated chronicler of the baguette. He stunned Conan O’Brien in 2007 on ” the Late Show”. He rhapsodized about how the good baguette can be touched and eaten, and the “appealing lines,” “geyser aromas”, and air pockets.
France submitted over 200 endorsements to the baguette’s UNESCO bid. These included letters from bakers as well as children’s drawings. Cecile Piot, a baker wrote a testimonial poem: “I’m here / Warm and light, magical / Under you arm or in your bag / Let me set the beat / To your day or idleness or work.”
The list of fellow winners reads as a cultural tour around the world. It includes mansaf, a traditional dish of mutton from Jordan, and rice from Jordan. There are also winter bear festivals in Pyrenean village; and Kun Lbokator which is traditional martial arts in Cambodia.
The French government announced that it would create a Bakehouse Open Day in recognition of the baguette’s newly-established status. This will “enhance and enhance the prestige of the artisanal knowledge required for the production and sale of baguettes” as well as support new scholarship programs and training programs for bakers.
The baguette is still in danger. Since 1970, France has lost 400 artisanal bakeries per year. This is particularly significant in France’s rural regions where supermarkets have taken over traditional mom-and pop bakeries.
Even worse, and in an insult to French pride, hamburger sales have outsold those of jamboneurre sandwiches made with ham on a baguette.
Some Parisian bakers were skeptical that Wednesday’s news would address their greatest fear that wheat and flour prices would continue to go up because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. This would force them to increase the price of their beloved bread sticks.
Pascale Giuseppi said, “This UNESCO recognition will not help us get through winter.” She was working behind the counter at her bakery near Champs-Elysees serving baguette sandwiches and a lunch rush. “We still have larger bills to pay.”
Jean-Luc Aussant, a nearby baker, stated that he wasn’t in the mood for celebrating anything and, after removing the flour from his fingers he grumbled that recognition would change “nothing.”
He said, “Now that it’s all in my head,” and added that he might use it as an excuse for raising the price of his baguette.