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Is the baguette under threat? How UNESCO could save the French bread

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9 min read
AUTHOR: Helen Massy-Beresford
Breakfast on a Parisian balcony

“Two hundred and fifty grams of magic and perfection in our daily lives” – that’s how French President Emmanuel Macron summed up the baguette, as it took its place on UNESCO’s list of world intangible cultural heritage last November, after a years-long campaign led by France’s politicians and bakers.

The French delegates in the room at the UNESCO meeting in Rabat, Morocco, cheered and waved baguettes in celebration, and back home, (most) bakers have welcomed the decision, but the good news comes at a time of multiple challenges for France’s bakers as they face up to long-term changes in consumer habits as well as short-term cost pressures.

France is home to one bakery for every 1,800 inhabitants and more than six billion baguettes are baked and sold every year. A 2022 study showed that 94% of Parisians live within a five minute walk of a bakery. If it is fair to say that bread plays an important role in France’s diet – and its identity, its place is not as central as it once was: the country counts around 33,000 artisan bakeries today, compared with around 55,000 in the 1970s.

In recent months, the pressure on France’s bakers has intensified: costs have gone up across the board – not just energy and wheat prices because of the war in Ukraine – but sugar, eggs, butter and other ingredients too, while consumers are also struggling with high inflation, reducing household budgets.

France’s bakers hope the recognition of the baguette by UNESCO will highlight the value of this emblematic French product, and remind consumers that it is worth paying a fair price for good quality bread.

“It is very important that the baguette – the French baguette – is recognised because it represents an ancestral skill that is admired throughout the world,” says Olivier Magne, Co-Founder of Farine & O bakery which has several branches in Paris.

“It’s a product that is of excellent quality when it is made with the right flour and by a skilled baker but it is also a product that is within the reach of everyone and that’s important,” says Magne, who won the prestigious title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2015.

The traditional French baguette, the baguette tradition, and its four ingredients – flour, yeast, water and salt – are enshrined in a 1993 decree that protects the process, which demands time and hand-kneading, and its end result, says Magne.

“The 1993 decree that set out the process and the ingredients for the baguette tradition with no additives really saved French bakers – without it there would only be industrial baguettes by now,” says Magne.

The baguette tradition is made by first weighing and mixing the four ingredients, followed by the all-important kneading by hand. Fermentation, dividing, relaxing of the dough follow, then the baguettes are shaped by hand, proved a second time, cut with shallow marks – the baker’s signature – and finally baked. Connoisseurs recognise a good baguette by its crunchy crust and chewy, honeycomb-textured interior.

As things stand, around 60% of the baguettes sold in France are made by artisan bakers, according to the Confédération Nationale de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Française (CNBPF), which represents the country’s bakers and has been working on the UNESCO campaign for around five years.

The threat of rising ingredient and energy prices

The traditional baguette dates its origins back to the long loaves of bread consumed in the 17th century. But for centuries most people’s daily bread came from large loaves that kept for many days: the baguette really became popular in France over the course of the 20th century and in particular following the Second World War. Then, bread was a vital part of people’s diets and the average person consumed around 900g per day. Nowadays that has fallen to around 94g of bread per person per day, a food consumed for pleasure rather than out of necessity, according to the CNBPF.

“The UNESCO inscription is very good news, but it has come at a time of problems for everyone, not just for bakers in France, but for everyone across Europe and around the world,” says Dominique Anract, President of the CNBPF.

“This UNESCO inscription is going to remind bakers that they must keep going and remind consumers that it’s really an exceptional product – flour, water, salt, yeast and then kneading by hand, with wheat originating from different regions just like cheese or wine – that deserves to be preserved and passed on to future generations.

But even with supportive policies in place that protect their traditional methods as well as specific financial aids to counter the current difficulties, life is becoming more and more challenging for the country’s bakers.

To survive, they will need to rein in their costs. Some bakeries are already reducing their output or opening hours or baking at night when power is cheaper, but they must also take advantage of the government financial aid on offer and – crucially increase their prices, Anract says.

Rachid Mhamdi, owner of L’Artisan de Gambetta bakery in Paris’s 20th arrondissement, says it is a balancing act: “Energy is going up as well as ingredients. We can’t avoid increasing our prices but we are trying to not increase them too much, to keep our prices reasonable.

Mhamdi, whose bakery turns out around 800 baguettes tradition per day, and as many as 1,200 baguettes overall, sees the UNESCO decision as an important boost for an emblematic product.

“The baguette tradition is one of the key products in the bakery – it’s very important, of course. If a bakery doesn’t make good baguettes traditions then what’s the point?

For Magne, an increase in the price of bread, alongside the UNESCO celebration of the baguette, might even prove to be a useful reminder of its worth.

“I think we (as a society) have got used to being too wasteful. My grandparents wouldn’t throw away yesterday’s bread: they knew what it was to harvest and mill the wheat and they didn’t throw away things they had sweated over. It’s time for a rethink. These are noble products that are worth a certain price.

Anract believes customers will be prepared to pay a little more to ensure their local bakery’s survival, even if they too are feeling the pinch, partly because of the bakery’s important role, which goes far beyond the bread itself.

But those bakers that don’t manage to pass on increased costs to customers may not survive, Anract warns, and that has implications for wider society.

“A bakery is a local presence that brings life to the local neighbourhood. In a village a bakery is often the last business to survive. It’s a catastrophe for a mayor when a village loses a bakery,” he says. 

The role of the baguette in French society

A trip to the bakery can be about much more than buying bread. For an isolated person living alone it may be their daily chance for a conversation, and for many children, being given the coins and sent in to buy a baguette by themselves is a memorable rite of passage on the path to independence.

Those social links are one of the reasons that led Guillaume Dubourg to train as a baker and launch his mobile bakery in and around his home village of Saint-Hilaire-de-la-Côte near Grenoble in south east France: “I noticed that many of the villages near me had become dormitory villages, where people worked far away and didn’t know their neighbours. I wanted to encourage more social links but above all I wanted to support organic agriculture and provide good, nutritional food for people.

Dubourg does not believe the baguette fulfils that role, however. Nor does he see it as a good representation of traditional French bread. The baguette’s composition and size may encourage its social role it’s not made to last for days, which means frequent trips to the bakery but from a nutritional point of view, celebrating bread made from white flour and chemical yeast as a traditional product is “not very logical”, Dubourg says. For bread to be a truly artisanal, nutritionally sound product, it needs to be made with levain or natural yeast and unrefined flour, he argues.

Dubourg’s mobile bakery uses solar panels for energy and he kneads his dough by hand on a traditional wooden kneading table before baking it in a woodfired oven. He buys his flour direct from local organic farmers who grow traditional varieties of wheat and mill it themselves into flour which Dubourg says offers more nutrients than the white flour used in the post-war success story that is the baguette.

That ability to cater to changing habits is something he has in common with other bakers, however. In two of the villages Dubourg serves, ad hoc food markets have grown up around the mobile bakery on the days it visits, encouraging neighbours to talk to each other while they do their shopping.

In some cases, catering to changing tastes may mean a move upmarket.“There are a lot of very nice artisanal bakeries that are opening and that are doing well,” says Anract.

“The world and our habits are changing very fast,” adds Magne. “Bakers have had to rise to that challenge and change what they offer – for some bakers, 30% of revenues can now be ready-to-eat products like snacks, salads, burgers etc.

The UNESCO recognition of the baguette may also help to ward off complacency, Magne says. “In France we organise a world baking championship but we often come third or fourth. We think we have our know-how and so now we don’t need to make the effort but this UNESCO inscription should encourage us to realise that we’re the pioneers of the baguette and we should work to remain the best in this area.

For Magne, and the majority of France’s bakers, the baguette tradition is a product worth protecting. “The baguette is definitely a symbol of life. It is used for the jambon-beurre (ham and butter sandwich) which is one of the biggest sellers in the bakery, a simple product but one that makes a meal.”

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