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Crunch time: UN puts baguette on the list of cultural heritage

PARIS (UKTN) — The humble baguette — the crusty ambassador for French baking around the world — is being added to the UN’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage as a cherished tradition to be preserved by humanity.

UNESCO experts meeting in Morocco this week decided that the humble French flute — made only of flour, water, salt and yeast — deserved UN recognition, after France’s culture ministry warned of a “continuous decline” in numbers traditional bakeries, with some 400 closing each year for the past half century.

Audrey Azoulay, head of the UN’s cultural service, said the decision honors more than just bread; it recognizes the ‘savoir-faire of artisan bakers’ and ‘a daily ritual’.

“It is important that these artisanal knowledge and social practices can continue in the future,” added Azoulay, a former French culture minister.

With the bread’s new status, the French government said it planned to organize an artisan baguette day called the “Open Bakehouse Day” to better connect the French to their heritage.

Back in France, bakers seemed proud, if not surprised.

“It belongs on the list, of course, because the baguette symbolizes the world. It’s universal,” says Asma Farhat, a baker at Julien’s Bakery near Paris’s Champs-Elysee Avenue.

‘If there is no baguette, you cannot eat properly. In the morning you can toast it, for lunch it’s a sandwich and then for dinner.”

Despite the decline in the number of traditional bakeries, France’s 67 million people still remain voracious consumers of baguettes – bought from various outlets, including supermarkets. The problem, observers say, is that they are often of poor quality.

“It’s very easy to get bad baguettes in France. It is the traditional baguette from the artisan bakery that is in danger. It’s about quality, not quantity,” says a Paris resident, Marine Fourchier, 52.

In January, French supermarket chain Leclerc was criticized by traditional bakers and farmers for its highly publicized 29-cent baguette, accused of sacrificing the quality of its famous 65-centimeter (26-inch) loaf. A baguette normally costs just over 90 cents (just over $1), seen by some as an index to the health of the French economy.

The baguette is serious business. The French “Bread Observatory” – a venerable institution that closely monitors the fate of the flute – notes that the French chew 320 baguettes of some shape every second. That is an average of half a baguette per person per day, and 10 billion per year.

Although it seems to be a typical French product, the baguette is said to have been invented in 1839 by the Vienna-born baker August Zang. Zang installed the French steam oven, which made it possible to produce bread with a brittle crust and yet an airy inside.

The product’s peak did not come until the 1920s, with the advent of a French law prohibiting bakers from working before 4am. The baguette’s long, thin shape allowed it to be made faster than its chunky cousins, so it was the only bread that bakers could make in time for breakfast.

The “craft know-how and culture of baguettes” was described at the meeting in Morocco, alongside other world heritage sites including Japan’s Furyu-odori ritual dances and Cuba’s light rum masters.