French baguette honoured with world heritage status

The humble baguette — the ambassador of crunchy French baking — is being inscribed on the United Nations’ list of intangible cultural heritage as a treasured tradition that humanity needs to protect.

Unesco experts gathered in Morocco this week to decide that the simple French flute – made from just flour, water, salt and yeast – deserves UN recognition after the French culture ministry warned of a “continuous decline” in the number of traditional bakeries. About 400 have closed every year over the past half century.

Audrey Azoulay, head of the UN’s cultural agency, said the decision was made not just to honor the bread, but the bread; it recognized “the virtuosity of artisan bakers” and “daily rituals”.

“It is important that this craft knowledge and social practice survive in the future,” added Azoulay, the former French culture minister.

The agency defines intangible cultural heritage as “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants”.

Along with bread’s new status, the French government said it planned to create an artisanal baguette day called “Open Bakery Day” to better connect the French with their heritage.

Back in France, bakers don’t seem surprised, but they seem proud.

“Of course it should be on the list because the baguette symbolizes the world. It’s universal,” said Asma Farhat, baker at Julien’s Bakery near the Champs-Elysées in Paris.

“You can’t have a decent meal without a baguette. You can have toast in the morning, a sandwich for lunch, and then dinner.”

Although it may seem like a quintessentially French product, baguettes are said to have been invented in 1839 by Vienna-born baker August Zang. Zang invented the French steam oven, which made it possible to produce bread with a crispy exterior and fluffy interior.

The product didn’t reach its peak until the 1920s, when French laws prohibited bakers from working before 4am. The long, thin shape of the baguette means it can be made faster than its unwieldy cousin, so it’s the only bread bakers can make in time for breakfast.

Although the number of traditional bakeries has declined today, France’s 67 million people are still voracious baguette consumers – bought at various points of sale, including in supermarkets. The problem, observers say, is that they are often of poor quality.

“It’s easy to get bad baguettes in France. Traditional baguettes from traditional bakeries are at risk. The key is quality, not quantity,” said Paris resident Marine Fourchier, 52.

In January, French supermarket chain Leclerc came under fire from traditional bakers and farmers for its much-publicized 29-cent baguettes, accusing it of sacrificing the quality of the famous 65-centimeter loaf. A baguette usually costs just over 90 cents ($A1.54), which some see as an indicator of the health of the French economy.

Baguettes are serious business indeed. France’s “Bread Observatory” – a prestigious institution that keeps tabs on the fate of the flute – states that the French chew 320 baguettes of different shapes every second. That’s an average of half a baguette per person per day, 10 billion per year.

At the Morocco conference, “Artisanal knowledge and culture of baguettes” was inscribed alongside other global cultural heritage items, including Japan’s winter dance ceremony and Cuba’s light rum master.

Associated Press

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