You’d be hard-pressed to find a country as fiercely proud of its cuisine and culture as the French.
But today, they have every reason to be after his wand was declared a UNESCO heritage site.
Bread, which literally means “baguette” and was rightly nicknamed “250 grams of magic and perfection” by Emmanuel Macron, is one of the permanent symbols of the nation.
And experts meeting in Morocco this week have decided that the simple French flute – made only from flour, water, salt and yeast – deserves UN recognition.
Baker David Buelens takes baguettes out of an oven at a bakery, in Versailles, west of Paris, ahead of the UNESCO decision
UNESCO has voted to include “the craftsmanship and culture of baguette bread” on its list of intangible cultural heritage, which already includes around 600 traditions from more than 130 countries.
It does not grant special protections to chopsticks but is added to the list to “help show the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness of its importance”.
France decided to submit the baguette to the panel after seeing Naples’ pizza given the special status, with Macron saying: “The baguette is the envy of the whole world”.
And to add: “Excellence and know-how must be preserved, which is why it must be included in the heritage”.
UNESCO chef Audrey Azoulay said it “celebrates the French art of living: the baguette is a daily ritual, a structuring element of the meal, synonymous with sharing and conviviality”.
“It is important that these social skills and habits continue to exist in the future.”
The baguette, a soft, elongated loaf of bread with a crispy crust, has been a central part of the French diet for at least 100 years, although some believe it has been around longer.
Three Paris city councilors distribute baguettes on boulevard Diderot after the closure of a bakery
The baguette, a soft and elongated loaf of bread with a crispy crust, is a symbol of France in the world.
The humble baguette, a staple bread in France, has been inscribed on the United Nations cultural heritage list
One legend says Napoleon Bonaparte’s bakers invented the elongated shape to make transporting his troops easier, while another posits that it was actually an Austrian baker named August Zang who invented the baguette.
Nowadays, a baguette – which means “wand” or “stick” – is sold for around 1 euro.
Made only with flour, water, salt and yeast, baguette dough must rest for 15 to 20 hours at a temperature between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius, according to the French Confederation of Bakers, which fights to protect its industrial bakery market.
More than six billion are baked each year in France, according to the National Federation of French Bakeries – but the UNESCO status comes at a difficult time for the industry.
France has been losing some 400 artisanal bakeries per year since 1970, going from 55,000 (one for 790 inhabitants) to 35,000 today (one for 2,000).
A young boy buys several baguettes in 1949 in preparation for the general bakers’ strike in Paris
The United Nations agency has granted “intangible cultural heritage status” to the baguette-making tradition and the way of life that surrounds them.
The decline is due to the spread of industrial bakeries and out-of-town supermarkets into rural areas, while city-dwellers are increasingly opting for sourdough and swapping their ham baguettes for hamburgers.
Yet it remains a quite common sight to see people with a few sticks under their arms, ritually chewing on the hot end as they leave the bakery or “bakery”.
There are national competitions, where contestants are sliced down the middle to allow judges to assess the evenness of their honeycomb texture as well as the color of the interior, which should be cream.
But although seemingly immortal in French life, the baguette didn’t officially receive its name until 1920, when a new law specified its minimum weight (80 grams) and maximum length (40 centimeters).
“Initially, the baguette was considered a luxury item. The working classes ate rustic breads that kept better,” said Loïc Bienassis, from the European Institute of History and Food Cultures, who helped prepare the UNESCO dossier.
France has been losing some 400 artisan bakeries a year since 1970, from 55,000
Parisians buy bread on August 27, 1944, after living through years of rationing during World War II
“Then consumption became widespread, and the countryside was conquered by the baguette in the 1960s and 1970s,” he says.
Its previous history is quite uncertain.
Some say long loaves were already common in the 18th century; others that it took the introduction of steam ovens by the Austrian baker August Zang in the 1830s for its modern incarnation to take shape.
A popular tale says that Napoleon ordered bread to be made into thin sticks that could be more easily carried by soldiers.
Another links baguettes to the construction of the Paris metro in the late 19th century and the idea that baguettes were easier to tear and share, avoiding arguments between workers and the need for knives.
France submitted its request to UNESCO in early 2021, with baguettes chosen from the zinc rooftops of Paris and a wine festival in Arbois.
“This is recognition for the community of artisan bakers and pastry chefs,” said Dominique Anract, president of the federation of bakeries in a press release.
“The baguette is flour, water, salt and yeast – and the know-how of the artisan.”
The myths and legends surrounding the French “magic wand”
It is part of French culture like the Eiffel Tower or Edith Piaf, but the origins of the humble baguette, which UNESCO inscribed on its Intangible Cultural Heritage List on Wednesday, remain a mystery.
Here are some of the most popular theories:
Napoleon’s bread of war
The oldest tale tells that the baguette is kneaded by the bakers of Napoleon’s army. Less bulky than a traditional loaf, the elongated, slender shape of the baguette allowed for faster baking in brick ovens hastily erected on the battlefield.
France’s most famous soldier was concerned with providing his men with their daily bread.
During his Russian campaign in 1812, he visited the ovens daily to sample the offering of the day and ensure that the crispy sticks were distributed regularly, according to historian Philippe de Ségur.
He also had portable bread mills sent to occupied Moscow, but setbacks suffered by the Grand Army in one of the deadliest military campaigns in history ended his attempt to export the food from pasty base.
The Viennese Connection
Another theory is that the baguette got its start in a Viennese bakery in central Paris in the late 1830s.
Artillery officer and entrepreneur August Zang brought Austrian culinary expertise to Paris in the form of the oval-shaped bread that was standard in his country at the time.
According to the Compagnonnage des boulangers et des pâtissiers, the network of French bakers, Zang decided to lengthen the loaves to make them easier to pick up by the city’s bread women in the large carts they pushed through the streets of the city.
Break the bread
Another theory is that the baguette was born at the same time as the metro for the 1900 Paris Exposition.
People from all over France came to work on the metro and fights often broke out on the spot between workers armed with knives, with which they cut large round loaves of bread for lunch.
According to the history site herodote.net, to avoid bloodshed, an engineer came up with the idea of ordering longer loaves that could be broken by hand.
Wake up early
In 1919, a new law aimed to improve the lives of bakers by prohibiting them from working from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
The reform gave them less time to prepare the traditional sourdough bread in the morning, marked the widespread shift to what was then called the yeast-based “flute”, which rose faster and came out of the oven in less than half an hour.
Standardized at 30 inches and 250 grams (eight ounces) with a fixed price until 1986, the baguette was initially the mainstay of wealthy metropolitans, but after World War II became the emblem of all French people.