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BAKING NEWS: U.N. deems French baguettes essential to humanity’s culture

Members of the French UNESCO delegation held up baguettes to celebrate the U.N. deeming French baguettes essential to humanity’s culture on Nov. 30. (Video: UNESCO)

PARIS — Lovers of France’s iconic long bread loaf: Rejoice! The baguette has now earned special recognition by the United Nations as an integral part of humanity’s cultural heritage.

That is to say, the culture and craftsmanship of baguette-making and consumption was added by UNESCO, the Paris-headquartered U.N. agency for culture, to a list that offers not just international recognition, but also the option of applying for funding to preserve this “intangible” heritage for future generations.

The baking news was enthusiastically welcomed in French bakeries Wednesday and sent the country’s social networks into a frenzy of memes. Members of the French UNESCO delegation celebrated by hoisting baguettes into the air as the decision was announced in Rabat, Morocco.

Back home in Paris, some bakers greeted their customers by announcing the joyful news. And the Twitter account of French President Emmanuel Macron took a brief pause from updates on his U.S. state visit to pay tribute to “250 grams of magic and perfection” that encapsulate “a way of life.”

“From now, it’s protected by UNESCO,” baker Sylvie Debellemaniere said proudly as she handed a baguette — crusty on the outside, but soft on the inside — to one of her customers on Wednesday evening.

Debellemaniere, who regularly delivers her fresh loaves to UNESCO’s headquarters, would have had ample opportunities to try to bribe the Paris-based organization with extra-soft French bread in recent months. But even though the baker monitored the long-anticipated decision with suspense on Wednesday, she never had any real doubts about the outcome.

For her, the baguette is a “mythical” part of French life — and one that’s “very sophisticated,” she said. Some weeks, she sells over 1,000 of them.

“The baguette is very few ingredients — flour, water, salt, yeast — and yet each baguette is unique, and the essential ingredient every time is the baker’s skill,” said Dominique Anract, president of the National Confederation of French Bakery and Patisserie.

As Parisians stopped by their local bakeries on Wednesday, many rejoiced at the news that they were now holding a piece of world cultural heritage in their hands.

Carefully balancing his UNESCO-approved purchase, customer and baguette lover Jean-Marie Michot, 42, praised the bread as both essential and versatile.

Fresh French bread is very good “for the body,” he assured without hesitation. Better, in any case, than the stale baguette from the supermarket, he added.

Claire Dinhut, 26, a French American food and travel content creator, said via email: “The baguette is SUCH a staple of French identity so it makes me really happy to find out that it was added to the world heritage list.”

“I rarely eat baguette outside of France because eating a baguette without the French ‘ritual’ of walking to your local (and favorite) bakery is just eating bread. Eating a baguette is SO much more than that,” said Dinhut, who lives in London. “There is nothing comparable to the first rip off of a fresh baguette. It’s perfect on its own, with a fat slab of salted butter, sweet jam, a great chunk of cheese … The list goes on and on.”

Bakeries remain deeply ingrained in France’s culture. The TV show “France’s Best Bakery,” in its 11th season, draws millions of viewers. During coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, boulangeries were considered essential businesses, and a trip to the bakery was an approved activity.

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France’s baking industry led a years-long campaign to secure this status on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO recognizes traditions, crafts and items as part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage because of “the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted” through them “from one generation to the next.”

In this case, the nomination drafted by France highlighted the fact that baguettes “generate modes of consumption and social practices that differentiate them from other types of bread, such as daily visits to bakeries to purchase the loaves and specific display racks to match their long shape.”

“The baguette is consumed in many contexts, including during family meals, in restaurants, and in work and school cafeterias,” it added.

France’s culture minister, Rima Abdul Malak, said the decision is a “great recognition for our artisans and these unifying places that are our bakeries.”

But in some ways, Wednesday’s UNESCO announcement was also a much-needed morale boost for French bakers.

In August in Paris, a baguette is sometimes a full 20 minutes away

French bakeries still produce some 6 billion baguettes a year, according to French newspaper Le Monde, but the average daily diet of bread has dropped from 800 grams in 1875 to about 80 grams. Across the country, and particularly in rural areas, bakeries have for the past few decades been disappearing at a rate of about 400 per year, leading to warnings from the industry that more needs to be done to protect the know-how of baguette-making.

Even though she operates a bakery in the center of Paris, baker Debellemaniere said she is increasingly concerned about the industry’s future.

“I’m so, so afraid of losing my life’s work,” she said, standing in her bakery. As energy prices have surged in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, her bakery’s spending on electricity has risen from $2,500 to $7,900. The cost of key ingredients has risen, too.

“It makes me sick,” she said. If the worst-case predictions, including power blackouts, turn out to be true, “we are all going to have to close our bakeries. There will be no more bread in France.”

Debellemaniere has had to make tough choices already. While her customers could previously buy freshly baked warm loaves until the evening, she now has to sell premade and cold baguettes to save electricity.

And recently, she said, she had to do what was long unthinkable in France — increase the price of a baguette. From $1.25 to $1.35.

Timsit reported from London.

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