French baguette gains place on World Cultural Heritage list

French President Emmanuel Macron holds a baguette during a reception honoring the French community in the US, at the French Embassy in Washington, DC, on November 30, 2022. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

The humble baguette, France’s staple bread, made it onto the United Nation’s cultural heritage list on Wednesday, drawing delighted responses from French bakers and non-bakers alike.

Paris-based UN heritage body UNESCO on Wednesday voted to include the “artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread” on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which already includes around 600 traditions from over 130 countries.

This “celebrates the French way of life: the baguette is a daily ritual, a structuring element of the meal, synonymous with sharing and conviviality,” said UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay.

“It is important that these skills and social habits continue to exist in the future.”

The baguette, a fluffy, elongated loaf of bread with a crunchy crust, is a symbol of France around the world and has been a central part of the French diet for at least 100 years.

Christophe Moussu, a teacher at the renowned Ferrandi culinary school in Paris, announced the news to his baguette-making class.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that’s it, we’re in the UNESCO (World Cultural Heritage list), it’s been recognised,” Moussu said, to cheers from his students. “I’m very happy.”

One student, 54-year-old Patricia Filardi, tried to explain what makes the baguette so special.

“It’s about the crunch of the baguette, the soft side of the crumb… It’s extraordinary,” she said.

A baguette – which means “wand” or “baton” – is sold for around €1 each.

Although baguette consumption has declined over the last decades, France still makes around 16 million of the loaves per day – that’s nearly 6 billion baguettes a year – according to a 2019 Fiducial estimate.

“I’m very happy because it represents France well,” Parisian pensioner Marie-Dominique Dumas said as she exited a bakery, where she buys a baguette every other day.

The baguette’s newfound status comes at a challenging time for the industry.

France has been losing around 400 artisanal bakeries per year since 1970, from 55,000 (one per 790 residents) to 35,000 today (one per 2,000).

The decline is due to the spread of industrial bakeries and out-of-town supermarkets in rural areas, while urbanites increasingly opt for sourdough, and swap their ham baguettes for burgers.

At least one artisan was unimpressed with the award at a time when his colleagues are struggling with spiking prices.

“It’s a joke,” said Francois Pozzoli, an award-winning baker in the major city of Lyon.

“At a time when baking is in an unprecedented crisis, this feels poorly timed. Flour is up 10-15 per cent, butter around 40 per cent, eggs 50-60 per cent… Bakers need support.”

Made only with flour, water, salt and yeast, baguette dough must rest 15 to 20 hours at a temperature between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius, according to the French Bakers Confederation, which fights to protect its market from industrial bakeries.

But if the ingredients are always the same, each bakery has its own subtle style, and every year there are nationwide competitions to find the best baguette in the land.

But despite being a seemingly immortal fixture in French life, the baguette only officially got its name in 1920, when a new law specified its minimum weight (80 grams) and maximum length (40 centimetres).

“Initially, the baguette was considered a luxury product. The working classes ate rustic breads that kept better,” said Loic Bienassis, of the European Institute of Food History and Cultures, who helped prepare the UNESCO dossier.

“Then consumption became widespread, and the countryside was won over by baguettes in the 1960s and ’70s,” he said.

Its earlier history is rather uncertain.

Some say long loaves were already common in the 18th century; others that it took the introduction of steam ovens by Austrian baker August Zang in the 1830s for its modern incarnation to take shape.

One popular tale is that Napoleon ordered bread to be made in 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 up and share, avoiding arguments between the workers and the need for knives.

France submitted its request to UNESCO in early 2021, with baguettes chosen over the zinc roofs of Paris and a wine festival in Arbois in the east of the country.