As It Happens

French baguette makes UN cultural heritage list — but some refuse to toast the decision

The baguette has been added to the United Nations’ cultural heritage list, delighting bakers around the world. But at least one bread expert says he’s feeling downright crusty about the decision. 

‘For me, it's not a day of celebration,’ says bread historian Steven Kaplan

A row of baguettes.
UNESCO, the United Nations' heritage body, has added the 'artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread' to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

The baguette has been added to the United Nations' cultural heritage list, delighting French bakers around the world. But at least one bread expert says he's feeling downright crusty about the decision. 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has voted to include the "artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread" on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which aims to bring awareness to — and inspire the protection of — significant cultural practices.

UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay says the decision "celebrates the French way of life." But one pre-eminent bread scholar disagrees.

"This is not a day of celebration," bread historian Steven Kaplan told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

Kaplan, a professor emeritus from Cornell University, says a baguette is a beautiful thing, and a tradition well worth preserving — but only when done right. 

The UNESCO listing, he says, doesn't do enough to differentiate a proper French baguette — lovingly crafted by artisans and eaten fresh — from the frozen, mass-produced knock-offs you get at the grocery store.

A smiling bald man with a gray beard and a green sweater stands on the streets of Paris holding a baguette in one hand and a book called Cherchez le Pain in the other.
Steven Kaplan, a retired Cornell University historian, has extensively studied the history of bread. (Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images)

"To use the Dickensian binary, it's a tale of two baguettes," Kaplan said.

On the one hand, he says, you have the "baguette of tradition." This bread takes time. It's made with a leavener, has a long first fermentation, and uses no additives. "The result is a baguette that is often sumptuous, voluptuous, spellbinding, just magnificent," he said.

On the other hand, you have what he calls "the baguette of creation" or the "white baguette." This is made with yeast, and uses salt and other additives to "mask the absence of taste."

"When I taste a bread like that, I feel offended. I feel a certain kind of rage," he said. "It is the gradual erosion of artisanal competence, and it gives us a baguette, alas, which is, by and large … without much taste, without much aroma, without much excitement, without much life. 

"And what UNESCO does is blur the distinctions."

Due to time zone differences, CBC was unable to reach UNESCO for comment before deadline.

However, the UN heritage body's listing specifically recognizes and promotes "the traditional production process" of the French baguette, and references "artisanal know-how."

"Baguettes require specific knowledge and techniques: they are baked throughout the day in small batches and the outcomes vary according to the temperature and humidity," it reads.

"The production process is primarily transmitted through work-based training, combining school courses with work experience in a bakery. This apprenticeship enables future bakers to acquire the necessary knowledge of the ingredients, tools and process."

'It's a part of the heritage,' says Chef Marc Thuet

The baguette, a fluffy, elongated loaf of bread with a crunchy crust, is a symbol of France around the world and has been a central part of the French diet for at least 100 years.

According to UNESCO, it is made with only four ingredients: flour, water, salt and leaven and/or yeast, "from which each baker obtains a unique product."

"The baguette is a daily ritual, a structuring element of the meal, synonymous with sharing and conviviality," UNESCO's Azoulay said. "It is important that these skills and social habits continue to exist in the future."

A white-haired man sits in a radio studio behind a microphone with the CBC logo on it. He's wearing a white chef's uniform, holding a baguette in one hand, and gesturing with the other.
Chef Marc Thuet shows off one of his fresh baked baguettes during an interview on CBC Radio's The Current. (Kate Cornick/CBC)

Marc Thuet, a Toronto-based chef who originally hails from France, helped popularize traditional baguettes — and, in fact, artisanal bread more broadly — in Canada's biggest city.

In an interview with The Current's Matt Galloway, he celebrated baguette's UNESCO elevation. 

The Intangible Cultural Heritage list includes around 600 traditions from over 130 countries, including foods, dance forms, festivals and more. The aim, UNESCO says, is to protect cultural diversity and encourage "mutual respect for other ways of life."

The baguette, Thuet says, is inextricably linked to the French way of life.

"It's a part of the heritage," Thuet said. "The baguette is as important as the Eiffel Tower in the French gastronomy."

LISTEN | Chief Marc Thuet talks baguettes on The Current: 
The artisanal baguette has been recognized as an “intangible heritage of humanity” by UNESCO. We talk to chef Marc Thuet about what makes the perfect baguette.

But Thuet also lamented that the baguette is "going downhill."

"A lot of people were buying it in these big superstores — all made by machine, no hand-made," he said. "The craft wasn't there anymore."

Creating a truly good baguette, he says, is no easy feat. 

"The baguette looks very simple, you know, but it's so hard to make. A lot of people say, 'Oh it's just the baguette.' But I mean, for us, for a lot of artisan bakers, the baguette is the challenge, you know?" he said.

A pile of baguettes.
Thuet took these baguettes out of the oven just hours before his CBC interview. He says making the perfect baguette is an incredible challenge for bakers. (Kate Cornick/CBC)

'The bakers psychologically need this': historian

Kaplan, the bread historian, doesn't begrudge the bakers who are happy with the UNESCO listing.

"The bakers psychologically need this," he said. "But objectively, it's just not a good thing."

The introduction of shoddy baguettes to the market, he says, poses a dilemma for artisanal bakers.

"Even if [the UNESCO listing] will give them a pumped-up feeling, a kind of bump for a couple of weeks afterwards, they're going to go back to this dilemma: what do we do? Do we go forward with the baguette tradition? Or do we go back to this white baguette, which is sad, denatured and a little bit morbid?"

As far as he's concerned, there's only one right answer.

"I want a bread that dances on my tongue. I want a bread that has an emotional charge. I want a bread that has a kind of almost intoxicating dimension to it. And this is the baguette of tradition," he said.

"I'm sad to see this blurring of the lines. I don't think it's good for bakers or traditional bakers. I don't think it's good for consumers. It confuses everybody."

With files from Padraig Moran, The Current and Reuters. Interview with Steven Kaplan produced by Chris Trowbridge. Interview with Marc Thuet produced by Ines Colabrese.

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