Unesco honours a bit of 'magic and perfection' in French Lives

Although just one of many breads that can be found in a typical boulangerie, the baguette is by far the most popular in France. More than 6 billion are sold every year in the country, according to the federation, for an average price of about 1 euro

By Catherine Porter and Constant Méheut

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A baker prepares loaves of Baguette bread in a bakery in Brou near Chartres, southwest of Paris, on December 1. Photo: AFP
A baker prepares loaves of Baguette bread in a bakery in Brou near Chartres, southwest of Paris, on December 1. Photo: AFP

Published: Sun 4 Dec 2022, 8:31 PM

Last updated: Mon 5 Dec 2022, 10:07 PM

It is more French than, perhaps, the Eiffel Tower or the Seine. It is carried home by millions each day under arms or strapped to the back of bicycles. It is the baguette, the bread that has set the pace for life in France for decades and has become an essential part of French identity.

On Wednesday, Unesco, the United Nations heritage agency, named the baguette something worthy of humanity’s preservation, adding it to its exalted “intangible cultural heritage” list.

The decision captured more than the craft knowledge of making bread; it also honoured a way of life that the thin crusty loaf has long symbolized and that recent economic upheavals have put under threat. Unesco’s choice came as boulangeries in rural areas are vanishing, hammered by economic forces like the slow hollowing out of France’s villages, and as the economic crisis gripping Europe has pushed the baguette’s price higher than ever.

“It’s a good news in a complicated environment,” said Dominique Anract, the president of the National Federation of French Bakeries and Patisseries, who led the effort to get the baguette on the Unesco heritage list.

“When a baby cuts his teeth, his parents give him a stump of baguette to chew off,” Anract added. “When a child grows up, the first errand he runs on his own is to buy a baguette at the bakery.”

A French delegation celebrated the announcement, delivered Wednesday in Rabat, Morocco, in classic French style — by waving baguettes and trading “la bise,” the traditional two kisses, one for each cheek.

President Emmanuel Macron of France reacted to the news by describing the baguette on Twitter as “250 grammes of magic and perfection in our daily lives.” He attached a famous photo by French photographer Willy Ronis of a beaming boy running with a baguette, almost as tall as he is, tucked under his arm.

Although just one of many breads that can be found in a typical boulangerie, the baguette is by far the most popular in France. More than 6 billion are sold every year in the country, according to the federation, for an average price of about 1 euro. (Until 1986, it had a fixed price.)

The baguette has set the pace for French life for as long as anyone can remember, from the smell of baking bread wafting through neighbourhoods at dawn to people munching on the pointy nub of a hot “tradition” on their commute home at the end of the day.

The baguette’s creation is the source of many urban legends: Napoleon’s bakers supposedly created it as a lighter and more portable loaf for the troops; Parisian bakers were said to have made it a rippable consistency to stop knife fights between factions building the city’s subway system (who could rip the bread apart with their bare hands and did not need knives to cut it).

In truth, historians say, the bread developed gradually; elongated loaves were already being produced by French bakers in 1600. Originally considered a bread for better-off Parisians who could afford to buy a product that went stale quickly — unlike the peasant’s heavy, round miche that could last a week — the baguette became a staple in the French countryside only after World War II, said Bruno Laurioux, a French historian specialising in medieval food.

But it was not the French who initially tied the baguette to French identity.

“The first to talk about how the French were eating baguettes — this very strange and different bread — were tourists at the beginning of the 20th century who came to Paris,” said Laurioux, who led the academic committee overseeing the baguette’s pitch to Unesco. “It was an outsiders’ view that tied the French identity to the baguette.”

Since then, the French have embraced it, hosting an annual competition outside the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris to judge the best baguette creator in the country. The winner, announced with flourish, wins not just prestige but also a yearlong contract to serve the Élysée Palace, where the president resides and works.

The baguette’s ingredients are limited to four: flour, water, salt and yeast. But speciality yeasts were developed to inspire the bread’s long fermentation stage; special knives are used to score its surface, creating the trademark golden colour; and long-handled wooden paddles are deployed to gently remove the bread from the ovens. The baguette is eaten fresh, so most boulangeries make more than one batch a day.

American French historian Steven Kaplan, perhaps the baguette’s most dedicated and famous historian, stunned talk-show host Conan O’Brien on “The Late Show” in 2007 when he rhapsodised about the sensual experience of touching and eating a good baguette, with its “appealing line,” “geyser of aromas” and air pockets, and the “little sites of memories” that “testify to a sensuality.”

In comparison, he described Wonder Bread as “tasteless,” “insipid,” “charged with chemicals” and “without any interest.”

France submitted more than 200 endorsements for the baguette’s Unesco bid, including letters from bakers and children’s drawings. One testimonial poem by Cécile Piot, a baker, read, “I am here / Warm, light, magical / Under your arm or in your basket / Let me give the rhythm / To your day of idleness or work.”

The list of fellow winners reads like a cultural tour of the world, including mansaf, the traditional dish of mutton and rice from Jordan; winter bear festivals in Pyrenean villages; and Kun Lbokator, traditional martial arts in Cambodia.

With the baguette’s new status, the French government said it planned to create a Bakehouse Open Day to “enhance the prestige of the artisanal know-how required for the production of baguettes” and support new scholarships and training programs for bakers.

Still, the baguette is under threat, with the country losing 400 artisanal bakeries a year since 1970 — a decline that is especially significant in France’s rural areas, where supermarkets and chains have overtaken traditional mom-and-pop bakeries.

To make matters worse — and in a sting to French pride — sales of hamburgers since 2017 have exceeded those of jambon-beurre, sandwiches made with ham on a buttered baguette.

Some Parisian bakers expressed skepticism that the news Wednesday would do much to alleviate their most pressing fear that the high costs of wheat and flour would continue to rise because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, forcing them to raise the price of the beloved bread sticks even further.

“This Unesco recognition is not what will help us get through the winter,” said Pascale Giuseppi, who was behind the counter of her bakery near the Champs-Élysées, serving a lunch rush for baguette sandwiches. “We still have bigger bills to pay.”

Nearby, another baker, Jean-Luc Aussant, said he was “not really in the mood to celebrate anything” and, brushing flour from his fingers, grumbled that the recognition would change “nothing.”

“Now that I think about it,” he added, “I might use this as an excuse to increase the price of my baguette.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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