Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and blogs at Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times in Europe and Asia and in Paris for CBS News. The views expressed in this commentary belong solely to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
French President Emmanuel Macron was all pumped up – in his element at the French embassy in Washington, DC, on Thursday. Surrounded by an adoring crowd of citizens that had twice elected him president, he was embarking on what he hoped to be a triumphant state visit to President Joe Biden. But towering over these accomplishments was a singular recognition announced the very morning of his arrival.
The baguette – France’s national dish – had just been added by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to its list of “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.” For the French, however, it is far from intangible. Though just a loaf of bread, it is so much more than that.
Macron described it to his 8.9 million Twitter followers as, “250 grams of magic and perfection in our daily lives.” And to a cheering crowd on his visit to the French expatriate community gathered at the embassy, he brandished in victory a fresh baguette and said, “Here in these few centimeters of bread, passed from hand-to-hand, there is exactly the very spirit of French savoir-faire.”
This savoir-faire was what UNESCO recognized as “artisanal know-how” passed down generation after generation to create a “unique sensory experience.” It’s for this reason that the baguette is not merely the simple common ingredients – flour, water, salt, and yeast – but the deep experience and skill that goes into making them that explains the reality.
There are as many different baguettes as there are bread makers – and have been for generations. Indeed, there are long breads that date back in France to the 16th century or earlier, though historically most French breads had been round and quite dense, according to Jim Chevallier, author of “About the Baguette: Exploring the Origin of a French National Icon.” Baguette, French for wand, has been used long before the long thin bread – as much as 3 feet long – took the name. Baguette magique, for instance, has for ages been a magic wand.
There are likely apocryphal stories that the baguette was baked in the current form for Napoleon’s soldiers so they could be put down their pant legs without having to add a heavy round loaf to their backpacks. But the modern baguette, with its current name attached, really had its debut after World War I, when the right flour and proper oven both arrived in France. By the early 1920s, it was embraced by France and the French, wherever they traveled.
Across Francophone Africa, the baguette took hold in French and Belgian colonies – and persisted through their independence. In Cameroon, when flour prices surged after the Russian boycott on wheat shipments from Ukraine, bakers turned to sweet potato flour to satisfy the unslackening demand for the baguette. There was an outcry in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in April, when the prices of baguettes surged – as much as 50% to 36 cents a loaf for the largest, a dime for the smallest – and led to fears that there were, more broadly, harder times to come. (That price, by the way, is barely a third of what the largest baguette costs in Gosselin, the renowned bakery around the corner from me on the Boulevard Saint-Germain on Paris’ Left Bank.)
But frankly, I prefer the smaller Viennoise au chocolat, a smaller baguette-shaped bread of a slightly softer texture with dark chocolate bits throughout. Indeed, as it happens, Vienna played an important role in the development of the modern baguette. It was Viennese “steam ovens,” imported to Paris in the 19th century, that allowed the long narrow bread with a thin crispy crust to be baked quickly and reliably.
As for what makes a great baguette, Ian Botnick, a classically trained baker and pastry chef in Austin, Texas, told me in an email exchange that “the best baguette has a crunchy crust which comes from a well steamed bake, and a chewy inside with consistent holes big enough to fill my baguette slice with butter but not so big that the structure of the slice is lost.” This can happen only in “a days long process of developing the dough and baking it. A mediocre baguette didn’t get steamed in the oven. So there isn’t a really nice crust.”
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In the end, it took years of campaigning by a regiment of French boulangers, or bakers, to persuade UNESCO that their handiwork deserved international recognition. And a gentle nudge by Macron, who certainly knows this French national dish well.
At La Rotonde, his favorite restaurant on Montparnasse, they order 70 of them every day. And they don’t even serve them in the first breadbasket that goes on every table – only when one asks for them specifically.
But more than 6 billion baguettes are churned out every day in France. Just this week, I had a toasted baguette crumbled into a bowl of delectable hot pumpkin soup in the Brasserie Le Bourbon across the plaza from the National Assembly. Another loaf was sliced to make the wrapping of my “sandwich mixte” (ham, cheese, cornichons on a baguette) at Les Saveurs on the rue de Bellechasse.
And the baguette followed Macron all across Washington. When he paid a visit to the State Department to call on Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was raised as a child in Paris, Blinken said, “France welcomed me, educated me, inspired me – I doubt that I would be here if I had not gone there. It quickly taught me something that everyone in France knows but, as of yesterday, is now officially recognized by UNESCO: The French baguette is a global cultural treasure.”
But then the secretary of state had another idea for Macron.
“As my mother who’s here today can attest, I would probably add the pain au chocolat to that,” Blinken said. “So maybe we can work on that.”