After already the “gastronomic meal of the French”, “artisanal know-how and the culture of the baguette” were inscribed this Wednesday on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The faithful companion of the tricolor tables was saluted by a vote in Rabat within the UN body, among 56 requests for registration, including Algerian raï music, Tunisian harissa, and the culture of chaï (tea) in Azerbaijan and Turkey. The Bear Festivals which take place every winter in five villages in the Pyrenees, in Andorra and in France, having also joined this prestigious list this Wednesday.
This classification of the wand “underlines that a food practice can constitute a heritage in its own right, which helps us to form a society“, declared the Director General of Unesco, Audrey Azoulay. The former French Minister of Culture added that “This inscription highlights the know-how of artisan bakers. It also celebrates a whole French art of living: the baguette is a daily ritual, a structuring element of the meal, synonymous with sharing and conviviality. It is important that these craft knowledge and social practices can continue to exist in the future“. The Federation of Bakery and Pastry Companies greeted on Twitter “excellent news for the sector” and one “considerable asset for the attractiveness of our professions“.
Doctoral student in the history of science and technology at EHESS and author of a thesis on The white bread factory: history of bread science and technology in France (late 19th-mid 20th century), Maxime Guesnon was the guest of our 10 p.m. news this Tuesday. He returns to the importance of the baguette in France.
Does the baguette tell us a certain history of French food industrialization?
Yes. The baguette is part of the modernization of bread and its product. It is a fairly recent invention in France and in the consumption of bread on a global scale. It comes from the end of the 19th century with the bleaching of flour and the industrialization of milling in France, with the replacement of millstones by metal cylinders. And above all, its golden age took place in the interwar period with the production of baker’s yeast to speed up breadmaking and ultimately mastery on the part of bakers thanks to the support of laboratories and chemical industries. upstream.
The post-war period in France, from the 1950s and 1960s, marked a moment of very intense modernization of the sector, a somewhat forced modernization too. White bread and the baguette in particular will then embody the modernization of the bakery and will correspond to the beginnings of an identity defended by the artisans. They have a claim to identity through this of what good bread is: good white bread from the bakery. While the food industries and their chains will begin to develop in the 70s, also manufacturing baguettes.
Is the artisanal baguette threatened by this industrialization?
This is a very complex question since, ultimately, what is an artisanal baguette? It’s more complex than you think. An artisanal baguette is also a baguette with additives, enzymes, yeast and the baguette and the craft were recomposed at the same time, as technical and chemical innovations progressed. The baguette itself is therefore not threatened today, except that the materiality of the baguette changes over the decades. We no longer have the same baguette today as we did ten or thirty years ago. It metamorphoses over time and the techniques used to make it.
The evolution of bakeries in recent years explained by journalist Lila Lefebvre.
The icing on the cake
Can we then agree on a so-called objective definition of the baguette?
Well no. The whole point of history is to say that ultimately there is no essence to a product and that the product is also the product of a story, that it evolves over time. We cannot frame a typical baguette recipe and it is complicated to try to find an origin for a recipe that we might think is ‘pure’ or frozen in time. Because it is the fruit of several circumstances, whether scientific, technical, cultural, social, and it is therefore constantly pulled in different directions.
Historically speaking, is it complicated to say when exactly the invention of the baguette dates back to?
These questions of origin are complicated. But certainly, the interwar period was a time when we found a lot of very long wands, which did not at all resemble current wands.
And for example, the traditional baguette is very complex. Chains make 1900 baguettes and give a figure that anchors a little in the past. We actually found a lot of luxury breads, fancy breads in Paris then, much more than today, with milk, with sugar, with honey. There were a lot of recipes including long loaves that would be called baguettes years later. But it is difficult to establish a very specific origin. It is really a product of the bleaching of flour in milling and the invention of yeast. These two ingredients make the baguette, with the modernization of the end of the 19th century.
In your opinion, is the baguette a cultural product as much as a bakery product?
Yes, and it is striking to observe that the corporation which is carrying out this project for inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity has ultimately contributed a lot to the folklore of the baguette. By promoting it, by promoting traditional French bread, homemade bread, the registration of the bakery. They have created a folklore, a certain idea of nostalgia, of an idealization of the past which is a bit of a reversal of the modernizing project since 1900, and especially 1950-1960. It’s a bit of a turnaround in the corporation’s discourse in the face of a modernity that is no longer selling either.
And what would this recognition by UNESCO change?
I don’t know, I’m not a soothsayer. I don’t think this is a strong argument that will fundamentally change the situation. After several decrees in the 1990s on traditional French bread, this finally places bread as something very specific, a relationship of the French to bread as if it were a very strong identity.
However, this also freezes the craftsmen a little, in my opinion. This leaves little room for other inventions, other manufacturing, other techniques. And there is something too ambivalent for this to be a creative factor, to invent other ways of doing things, to create other sectors, other products.
In Japan, the baguette is very successful. Reporting by Karyn Nishimura
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