The French Baguette

The French baguette in 2022 achieved UNSECO world heritage status as a cultural icon. Odyssey offers a range of tours into France and has a collection of Articles to learn more about this leading European country. An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.

10 Jan 23 · 9 mins read

The French Baguette

It doesn’t get more quintessentially French than the baguette. For centuries, the long, thin, crusty loaf – made with just flour, water, salt, and yeast – has stood at the core of French culture, an essential part of the national identity. Each day it is carried home by millions, with around 10 billion sold each year in France, all for the average price of about 1 euro. It’s so important that the United Nations has recently officially classified it as an integral part of humanity’s cultural heritage!

So, what exactly makes the baguette so special? To answer this question, this article explores the French bread’s nature, history, practices around serving and eating, UNESCO cultural listing, and efforts to maintain the sacred tradition against modern threats. The article is intended as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s small group tours to France for mature and senior travellers. On numerous tours we explore France’s fairy-tale natural beauty, its ancient Roman and Imperial heritage, its World Heritage Sites, world famous cities, and of course its culinary delights, all with some truly spectacular scenery along the way.

A baguette with wine and Eiffel Towel in background, Paris

What is a Baguette?

The baguette is a long, thin type of bread made with only four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. Bakers use specific knowledge and techniques to prepare baguettes, baked throughout the day in small batches (to be eaten fresh), with outcomes varying according to temperature and humidity. Typically, the baguette is about 5-6cm in diameter, 55-65 cm long, and weighs about 250 grams.

Special knives are used to score the baguette’s surface to create a trademark golden colour. The crumb inside, meanwhile, is a cream colour rather than white. The base is smooth, the loaf stays straight when held up, and its crust is always crispy. Out of the oven, the baguette gives of a fragrance which has a touch of sweetness mixed with a yeasty, slightly toasty smell. Its taste is nutty, buttery, sweet, and savoury.

Although the ingredients are always the same, the shape and crust can be changed to create several different types of baguettes. There is the classic baguette, characterised by its thick crust; the traditional baguette, with a crispier crust and airier crumb; the string baguette, which is thinner, shorter, and hence crunchier than others; the flute baguette, a larger version of the classic, weighing approximately 400 grams; and a smaller variety known as the déjeunette. You can also order a demi-baguette (half a baguette). For those who prefer not to eat white bread, there are also varieties made of wholemeal bread, rye bread, sourdough bread, gluten-free bread, and even a sweet baguette approximating the texture of the brioche. Crusts can also be made from poppy seeds or cereals.

History of the Baguette

No one knows exactly how the baguette originated – but there are many urban legends. Some say Napoleon ordered his bakers to create the bread as a lighter and more portable alternative for his soldiers to carry. Another story goes that it was created during the construction of the Paris metro with a consistency that could be easily ripped with hands. In this way, knives could be forbidden underground, thereby preventing deadly knife fights that had become common between workers.

One legend even attributes the baguette not to a Frenchmen but to an Austrian! The Vienna-born baker August Zang is said to have invented the baguette in 1839 following the arrival of the steam oven and with the use of a new Austrian yeast before then importing it to France.

In reality, it’s much more likely that the bread developed gradually over time. Already in the 1600s, during the reign of Louis XIV, French bakers were producing elongated, wide loaves. Long, thin ones then emerged in the mid-18th century, and by the 19th century some were far longer than today’s baguette – reaching up to six feet long!

The baguette that we know today, however, was not officially named until 1920. It was then that a law was passed restricting bakers from starting work before 10am. The long, thin banquettes thus became popular as they could be made more quickly, requiring less time to rise as traditional bread – just in time for breakfast!

At first the baguette was considered a bread for better-off Parisians who could afford to spend on a product that went stale quickly, and peasants stuck to their heavy, round miche that could last a week. Nevertheless, by the end of the Second World War II, it had been embraced as a staple in the French countryside too.

Since then, the French have held an annual competition called Le Grand Prix de la Baguette outside the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris to determine the country’s best baguette creator. The winner out of nearly 200 competitors is granted a yearlong contract to serve France’s president their daily bread.

The quality of the baguette has been enshrined in law since 1993. Le Décret Pain (The Bread Decree) mandates that traditional baguettes can only be made with wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast, and that they have to be made on the premises where they are sold. They are also forbidden to be frozen at any stage or contain additives or preservatives.

Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Eating Baguettes

The best baguettes can be found at the French boulangeries (bakeries). With batches pulled from the oven multiple times a day, you’ll always find fresh bread here. They’re usually sold in paper bags to be carried without having to touch the crust. This also allows for the heel of the loaf to be torn off as a snack on the way home from the bakery – a standard practice amongst French people.

At home, French people tend to cut the baguette in the air rather than using a chopping board, with pieces usually about 5cm. It’s even more common, however, to just tear off a portion as the loaf is being passed around the table.

It is served alongside savoury dishes, eaten as toast topped with butter or jam, used to make sandwiches (particularly with ham and butter), eaten as a snack accompanied by spread, or even stuffed with fresh food.

Baguette sandwich

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Listing

In November 2022, UNESCO added the baguette to its “intangible cultural heritage” list, naming it something worthy of humanity’s preservation. UNESCO’s delineation of cultural heritage celebrates and protects “traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.”

The “artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread” was added to the list of 600 other items. It joins other listings such as Spanish flamenco dancing, Slovakian bagpipe culture, Chinese shadow puppetry, winter bear festivals in Pyrenean villages, and the Mongolian coaxing ritual for camels. Other culinary listings include Jodan’s traditional dish of mutton and rice, Belgian beer culture, Neapolitan pizza, and Arabic coffee.

France submitted more than 200 endorsements for the baguette in its bid to be included on UNESCO’s list. These included letters from bakers and children’s drawings. In all, the process to collect all the necessary documentation took France’s cultural ministry six years.

The country’s drafted nomination highlighted the special status of the baguette, with its own unique social practices and consumption methods, such as daily bakery visits and the use of display tracks that fit the bread’s signature long shape. Aspiring bakers must also undergo extensive work-based training, including school courses and an apprenticeship in a bakery, to acquire the necessary knowledge of the ingredients, tools, and process.

According to Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, the baguette has been included on the list because it “celebrates the French way of life: the baguette is a daily ritual, a structuring element of the meal, synonymous with sharing and conviviality.” “It is important that these skills and social habits continue to exist in the future,” he said.

With the baguette’s new status, the French government has committed to help its citizens better connect with their heritage. To do so, it plans to create an artisanal baguette day called “Open Bakehouse Day”. This will “enhance the prestige of the artisanal know-how required for the production of baguettes” and support new scholarships and training programs for bakers.

Bread baguettes in a basket in the baking shop

The Baguette Under Threat

France’s bid to include the baguette on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list was spurred largely by the bread’s controversial decline in recent years. Much of this is due to the mass closure of boulangeries in rural areas. About 400 have closed each year since 1970 – a drop from 55,000 to 35,000 today – as traditional mum-and-pop bakeries have struggled against the rise of supermarkets and chains taking root on the periphery of rural areas. Young people are also increasingly less attracted to the long hours of the traditional bakers. In some towns where bakeries have closed, vending machines have even popped up to replace them.

For many the disappearance of traditional bakeries has come to symbolise the decline of France’s rich village life. Bakeries used to play a central role in village life, especially important in celebrating major life events, including baptisms, communions, and weddings. This made customers loyal, shopping at the bakery every day. Now many go to their local bakery only on weekends. With this, villagers are losing contact with other inhabitants.

Saint Emilion village in Bordeaux
Landscape view of Saint Emilion village in Bordeaux region in France. Bakeries are disappearing from villages like this across the country.

Despite this, the number of bakeries over all in France is actually increasing, especially in big cities. However, the baguette is still under threat in the cities in other ways. An economic crisis gripping Europe has pushed its price higher than ever. Wheat and flour prices continue to rise due to Russia’s war in Ukraine and bakers have been forced to put up the price.

To make matters worse, customers are not eating as much bread as in the past, and when they do sourdough is becoming increasingly popular. Since 2017, sales of hamburgers have also exceeded those of jambon-beurre – sandwiches made with ham on a buttered baguette.

Nevertheless, many bakers remain committed to saving the baguette. And as the Le Grand Prix de la Baguette competition reveals, more and more so it is immigrants or their heirs who are maintaining this sacred tradition. This year’s winner of the best baguette is the son of a Tunisian immigrant, as was last year’s winner. Three years ago, it was a baker of Senegalese origin, and two years before that another Tunisian won. This year nearly half of the runners-up had names that were distinctly un-French. Immigrants are increasingly disproportionately represented as they and their offspring are naturally more inclined to take up and work hard the tough jobs natives have rejected. With this new generation of committed bakers, it’s unlikely the baguette will disappear any time soon.

Tour of France

Odyssey offers various easy, convenient, and relaxed escorted small group tours across France and beyond. As a travel experience, beautifully historic and immaculately cosmopolitan, France is sure to make your jaw drop in whichever city you find yourself in. Several centuries of history will be all around you, evident in the blend of architectural styles, the iconic landmarks and the many monuments to some of France’s most important figures and historical moments. Encompassing beautiful scenery, quaint villages, great wines and plenty of hidden gems, a trip here is sure to be equal parts memorable and amazing

Our tours of France are ideal for solo travellers or couples seeking an intimate guided tour led by an expert tour manager and local guide. When it comes to our tours, we select our destinations with an eye to getting off the beaten path while also providing the opportunity to explore the major cities with small group tours to Paris, the inimitable and endlessly elegant capital, as well as to the port city of Bordeaux, the capital of France’s largest département, Gironde.

Our France tours also delve into Provincial France and the villages of Alsace; examine the history of classic French gardens with a visit to the magnificent Palace of Versailles; and explore the life of French Impressionist master Claude Monet through his most loved places in France including Le Havre, his hometown on the Normandy coast. On our Explore Paris tour we visit the Place de la Bastille, the Tuileries Gardens and the stunning Musee de l’Armee; while our Southwest France tour allows you to journey along the Canal du Midi sharing in travel experiences almost 250 years old.

If you are considering joining a France Odyssey tour, some of things to think about include what places you would like to visit, when you would like to go and the best way to travel around the country. Whatever sightseeing tour you choose for your French vacation, from a tour of the entire country to immersing yourself in one city, Odyssey Traveller makes sure you have time to learn about and appreciate France’s culture, history and people.

Carcassonne. France . Beautiful sunset landscape in the famous city in France.

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