French President Emmanuel Macron has praised it as “250 grams of magic and perfection”; millions of people enjoy the crunchy crust that hides a soft and tender heart, several times a day. And today, November 30, UNESCO has agreed with Macron, the baguette has been enshrined as part of France’s “intangible cultural heritage”.
The baguette, as such, isn’t really as old as we might think, it wasn’t recognized as a distinct style of bread with the name we know today, until the 1920’s in Paris, yet it quickly became the jewel of French gastronomy, to the point where the government got involved in maintaining its standards, regulating the composition of the dough and the dimensions of the finished product. A baguette has a diameter of about 5 to 6 centimeters (2–2+1⁄2 inches) and a usual length of about 65 cm (26 in), although a baguette can be up to 1 m (39 in) long. In November 2018, documentation surrounding the “craftsmanship and culture” on making this bread was added to the French Ministry of Culture‘s National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Since the origin of the baguette is shrouded in mist, many myths surround it. Some say Napoleon Bonaparte in essence created the French baguette in order to allow soldiers to more easily be able to carry bread with them. Since the round shape of other breads took up a lot of space, Bonaparte requested they be made into the skinny stick shape with specific measurements to be able to slide into the soldiers’ uniform. Highly doubtful, but a cute story.
Every day, 12 million French consumers visit their bakery—usually more than once because no self-respecting Frenchman would eat a baguette that came out of the oven more than four hours ago. More than six billion baguettes are bought each year. Going to buy bread is not only a necessity, but it’s a ritual and an opportunity to socialize with the neighbors.
In short, the baguette feeds the body, the soul, and the pride of the French. Much as Neapolitans feel about pizza, the Belgians about their beer or the Koreans about kimchi–all foods already recognized by UNESCO—it’s more than just bread, it’s an almost spiritual experience. The baguette defines a national soul.
“It is a recognition for the community of artisan bakers and pastry chefs. (…) The baguette is flour, water, salt, yeast and the know-how of the artisan“, welcomed Dominique Anract, president of the National Confederation of French Bakery and Pastry in a press release.
Like most traditional arts and crafts, bread-making (the art of the boulangier) is in decline, thanks to a host of factors like industrialization and the decline in the number of individually owned boulangeries, especially in rural communities. In 1970, there were some 55,000 artisan bakeries (one bakery for 790 inhabitants) compared to 35,000 today (one for 2,000 inhabitants).
As globalization ravages the distinct cultures, homogenizing the traditions and habits of communities–both large and small—we fetishize cultural products—edible or not—to try to slow down the erosion of cultural distinctness. The elevation of pizza or the baguette to such heights as making them national symbols is both a celebration of identity and a manifestation of our terror of losing it. The baguette is our latest attempt to hang on to who we are.