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Opinion Why the announcement on France’s baguettes is as laughable as it is laudable

French baguettes on display at The French Bastards bakery in Paris on Nov. 30. (Yoan Valat/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
4 min

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston. His new book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.

France is on a roll. A cylindrical roll, to be precise. Weeks after French novelist Annie Ernaux earned the Nobel Prize for literature, the French baguette has bagged UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage prize. Along with Indian yoga, Irish hurling and Iranian oud playing, baguette-making has now been consecrated as a tradition “inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants” that maintains “cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization.”

Sadly, UNESCO’s announcement is as laughable as it is laudable.

Savor the opening line: The baguette, it declares, is “the most popular kind of bread enjoyed and consumed in France throughout the year.” Indeed, a staggering 6 billion baguettes are sold annually in France. By way of comparison, 550 million Big Macs are sold each year. Globally.

UNESCO lists the several and subtle stages of baguette preparation and the few and simple ingredients it requires: “flour, water, salt and leaven and/or yeast.” These guarantee that every baguette is “unique” and results in “a specific sensory experience.”

Yet this description falls short. A real baguette is not made, as UNESCO claims, with either yeast or the sourdough starter called levain. When it comes to an authentic baguette — known as a “baguette de tradition” — there is no either/or: It is made only with levain. That version of the bread requires more time, patience and skill from the baker (as well as more, well, dough from the customer).

The vast majority of those 6 billion baguettes are “baguettes de pain,” which have more in common with the Big Mac — or, for that matter, the putative “French baguette” in your local supermarket — than with the baguette de tradition. This is an odd situation for a nation that, for centuries, has used the quality and quantity of bread as the measures of its social, political and economic well-being — where revolutions have been the stuff of flour (or the lack of it).

Consider Marcel Pagnol’s classic 1938 film “La femme du boulanger” (“The Baker’s Wife”). Village life comes to a standstill when the baker, played by the incomparable Raimu, starts drinking and stops baking upon learning that his younger wife has run off with a shepherd. Mobilized by the local priest, who is shocked — shocked! — to find that there is no bread to bless, the villagers search for the errant wife and persuade her to return to her husband. The film ends, predictably but tellingly, when the reunited couple fire up the oven to prepare the next day’s baguettes.

Funnily enough, it took an American, the brilliant historian Steven Kaplan, to open France’s eyes to its vexed relationship to bread. As Kaplan rightly notes in his book “Good Bread Is Back,” bread has not only been the center of material concerns in France, but its symbolic weight has also long “distinguished it from all other goods, including absolute essentials.”

Intimidated by the specter of Americanization, most French bakers raised the tattered white flag of surrender and lowered the doughy white flag of artisanal standards. Lionel Poilâne, the grand resistant of traditional baking, called these bakers “reverse alchemists.” They transformed le bon pain into le faux pain — mass-produced facsimiles that are to real bread what a tour of Paris’s sewer museum is to Jean Valjean’s tour of the sewers in “Les Misérables.”

Moreover, Poilâne had crusty words for the baguette, inveighing against his corporation’s “baguettocentrism.” This obsession encouraged the use of frozen dough and industrial ovens, turning the crusty and golden wonder into a rubbery and pallid blunder. Even French President Emmanuel Macron has collaborated with this misrepresentation. In a tweet praising the baguette as “250 grams of magic and perfection in our daily lives,” Macron included Willy Ronis’s iconic photo of a boy, with a baguette under his arm, running down a street in Paris. But the photo dates from 1952, the very nadir of industrialized French baking in the 20th century — suggesting that the baguette was as tasteless as the photo is timeless.

In an interview with Le Monde, Kaplan praised the efforts of artisan boulangers and boulangères, whose shops, aided by state regulation, carry the official imprimatur “Boulanger, c’est un metier” (“Baker, it is a profession”). But he also warned that the battle, far from won, was hobbled by the UNESCO announcement.

Just like authentic bread, authentic traditions require authentic ingredients. Change just one and it changes everything, from the texture of the bread to the texture of the past.