There are some foods that when you see them, you immediately think of the country they come from. Take the baguette. It’s synonymous with France and now the UN’s cultural body has granted it special cultural protection—just like Neapolitan pizza, Belgian beer culture and Arabic coffee.
The “artisanal know-how and culture of the baguette” joined UNESCO’s list this week of Intangible Cultural Heritage. That’s to say, things around the world that require a certain savoir faire (know how) to make and are recognised as being integral to the culture they come from.
The U.S. has lots of cultural places that are recognised by UNESCO as being heritage sites (Yellowstone National Park and the Statue of Liberty, for example) but it doesn’t have any food on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This week, the traditional tea-making practices in China and cold noodles from North Korea were also added to the UN’s list.
A real baguette has only four ingredients—flour, water, yeast and salt—and it is baked in a steam oven to give its crispyness. Since a 1920s law, it must have a weight of between 250g to 300g and be no longer than 65cm. There are annual competitions in France to determine who is the best baguette maker and the winner gets to supply baguettes to the Élysée Palace, where President Emmanuel Macron lives.
There are lots of lovely stories about how the baguette came to be. Maybe Napoleon wanted his soldiers to have a handy snack that would fit into the slender trouser pockets of their army uniform?
Maybe when the Paris Metro (subway) was being built in the 1890s, someone invented a lighter bread that workers could easily tear apart so that rival gangs of workers wouldn’t have to carry knives that they might use on each other?
The 1920s law stated that no one should have to get up before 4am to work, meaning that maybe the baguette was made longer and thinner to cook more quickly?
Or possibly the baguette might have come to pass because of an Austrian? In the 1830s, Austrian baker August Zang set up a bakery in Paris that introduced the French to the Viennese kifpel, a crescent-shaped pastry that the French named a croissant. This new steam method, plus the increasing abundance of white flour, might have led the French to abandon their love of wholemeal, rounder and flatter breads.
The popularity of baguettes has been declining since the 1970s, with people swapping to sourdough or other fast food options at lunch. And many traditional bakeries have lost out to out-of-town supermarket chains—France is losing 400 artisanal bakeries every year. There are now only 35,000 bakeries in France (one for every 2,000 people) as opposed to 55,000 in 1970 (at that time, there was one bakery for every 790 people).
However, the baguette is still incredibly popular. The National Federation of French Bakeries states that 6 billion baguettes are baked every year and it is believed that on average, each French person eats half a baguette every day.