The French baguette is as symbolic of France as the Eiffel Tower. The aromatic, golden, crusty bread has a deep flavor attributed to the long fermentation process.
And now the respected United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Cultural Heritage of Humanity list – which includes other cultural fermented foods and beverages like champagne, kimchi and tequila – includes the French baguette. Specifically, the “artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread.” President of France Emmanuel Macron calls it “250 grams of magic and perfection in our daily lives.”
“The traditional production process entails weighing and mixing the ingredients, kneading, fermentation, dividing, relaxing, manually shaping, second fermentation, marking the dough with shallow cuts (the baker’s signature) and baking,” UNESCO wrote. “Unlike other loaves, the baguette is made with only four ingredients (flour, water, salt and leaven and/or yeast) from which each baker obtains a unique product.”
The baguette is integral to the French way of life. More than six billion are baked every year in France, according to the National Federation of French bakeries.
The traditional baguette is taken seriously in France. It was officially given the name in 1920, a law specifying its minimum weight (80 grams) and maximum length (40 centimeters). An annual competition outside the Notre-Dame cathedral awards the best baguette baker in the country with a yearlong contract to serve the Élysée Palace, where the president lives.
“When a baby cuts his teeth, his parents give him a stump of baguette to chew off,” said Dominique Anract, the president of the National Federation of French Bakeries and Patisseries announced at the French Confederation of Bakers. “When a child grows up, the first errand he runs on his own is to buy a baguette at the bakery.”
The group led the effort to get the baguette on the UNESCO heritage list. The country was considering nominating the baguette, Paris’ gray zinc rooftops or the Biou d’ Arbois wine festival.
The news comes during a tumultuous time for artisanal bread. France is losing 400 artisanal bakeries a year since 1970, from 55,000 (one per 790 residents) to 35,000 today (one per 2,000). It’s been a significant hit to France’s rural areas, as supermarket chains overtake traditional, local bakeries.
French newspaper Le Monde points out that industrial bakeries are also putting mom-and-pop bakers out of business. Many consumers are swapping traditional baguette’s for modern favorites, like sourdough or burgers. Since 2017, sales of burgers in France have exceeded sales of jambon-beurre, the classic French ham baguette and butter sandwich.
After UNESCO’s announcement, the French government announced 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.
French bakers were skeptical. Parisian bakers told the New York Times after the announcement that their fears of high costs of wheat and flour (due to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine) would not be alleviated by the baguette’s new status.
“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.”