The humble baguette—the crunchy ambassador for French baking around the world—is being added to the United Nations’ list of intangible cultural heritage as a cherished tradition to be preserved by humanity.
Experts from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) gathering in Morocco this week decided that the simple French flute—made only of flour, water, salt, and yeast—deserved U.N. recognition, after France’s culture ministry warned of a “continuous decline” in the number of traditional bakeries, with some 400 closing every year over the past half-century.
The U.N. cultural agency’s chief, Audrey Azoulay, said the decision honors more than just bread—it recognizes the “savoir-faire of artisanal bakers” and “a daily ritual.”
“It is important that such craft knowledge and social practices can continue to exist in the future,” added Azoulay, a 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.”
Back in France, bakers seemed proud, if unsurprised.
“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 Paris’s Champs-Elysees avenue. “If there’s no baguette, you can’t have a proper meal. In the morning you can toast it, for lunch it’s a sandwich, and then it accompanies dinner,” Farhat added.
Although it seems like the quintessential French product, the baguette was said to have been invented by Vienna-born baker August Zang in 1839. Zang put in place France’s steam oven, making it possible to produce bread with a brittle crust yet fluffy interior.
The product’s zenith did not come until the 1920s, with the advent of a French law preventing bakers from working before 4 a.m. The baguette’s long, thin shape meant it could be made more quickly than its stodgy cousins, so it was the only bread that bakers could make in time for breakfast.
Despite the decline in the number of traditional bakeries today, France’s 67 million people still remain voracious baguette consumers. France’s “Bread Observatory,” a venerable institution that closely follows the fortunes of the flute, notes that the French munch through 320 baguettes of one form or another every second. That’s an average of half a baguette per person per day, and 10 billion every year.
The problem, observers say, is that baguettes can often be poor in quality.
“It’s very easy to get [a] bad baguette in France. It’s the traditional baguette from the traditional bakery that’s in danger. It’s about quality not quantity,” said one Paris resident, Marine Fourchier, 52.
In January, French supermarket chain Leclerc was criticized by traditional bakers and farmers for its much publicized 29-cent baguette, accused of sacrificing the quality of the famed 26-inch loaf. A baguette normally costs just over 90 euro cents (US$1), seen by some as an index on the health of the French economy.
The French baguette joined a number of other global dishes and traditions as new additions on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list this year, including:
- Al Talli, traditional embroidery (United Arab Emirates)
- Beekeeping (Slovenia)
- Alheda’a, oral traditions of calling camel flocks (Saudi Arabia, Oman, and United Arab Emirates)
- Furyu-odori, ritual dances (Japan)
- Hungarian string band tradition (Hungary)
- Talchum, mask dance drama (Republic of Korea)
- The art of the traditional blouse with embroidery on the shoulder (altiţă) (Romania and the Republic of Moldova)
- Traditional tea processing (China)
- The art of pottery-making of the Chăm people (Vietnam)
- Ukrainian borscht cooking (Ukraine)
- Traditional Ahlat stonework (Türkiye)