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Baguette: A symbol of French culture going global

Baguette: A symbol of French culture going global

The French baguette is more than just a long and slim bread with a crunch. It's a symbol of French culture recognised by UNESCO

The French baguette is more than just a long and slim bread with a crunch. It's a symbol of French culture recognised by UNESCO The French baguette is more than just a long and slim bread with a crunch. It's a symbol of French culture recognised by UNESCO

In season three of the hugely popular Netflix show Emily in Paris, McDonald’s is planning to launch the McBaguette in France. Whether McDonald’s will actually ever do that, we don’t know, but the McBaguette may just turn out to be a hit given the love for baguettes that the French have. Consider this: nearly 10 billion baguettes are eaten in France every year.

There are few things quite as quintessentially French than the humble baguette. Little wonder, then, that UNESCO has added the bread to its ‘intangible cultural heritage list’ in 2022. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside and good with just about anything—smothered in jam, dipped in butter, had with soup, milk or coffee—the long, slim bread is a staple in most French households.

The exact provenance of the baguette is not known. But like with most legends associated with food, there are several interesting stories regarding the baguette. One famous origin story credits Napoleon Bonaparte. “It is said he ordered the bread to be made longer and more slender in shape to fit into the pockets of his soldiers or to be carried easily under their arm,” says Maxime Montay, Executive Chef at Delhi-based French pâtisserie Monique. “Even today, you see most French persons carrying the baguette under their arm,” he adds. Another theory holds that bread was the cause of the French Revolution because bread was the mainstay of the French diet, and peasants rioted when they saw the nobility eating the crusty white sticks while they faced shortages and famine.

Whether or not the baguette was responsible for the fall of the Bastille, the post-revolutionary government decreed in 1793 that “all bakers will be held, under the penalty of imprisonment, to make only one type of bread: The Bread of Equality”. Over the decades, as wheat became cheaper, baguettes (made of wheat) became common. Pre-revolution, the peasants ate bread made of bran and only the aristocrats ate white bread made of wheat.

One more origin story points to a 1920 French law that prohibited bakers from working between 10 pm and 4 am, which made it impossible to get the bread cooked in time for breakfast, or the bakeries’ opening hours. This was solved by changing the bread into long, thin baguettes that cooked faster. Montay explains that while a baguette takes only 10-15 minutes to bake, a loaf of bread takes an hour. “And that’s just the baking time. The overall process of making a loaf of bread is much longer than that of a baguette,” he says.

Another much-loved myth refers to the construction of the Paris metro in 1898. Workers from across France were brought to work on the project and they carried knives to cut their loaves of bread. Arguments often led to knife fights. “So, the metro management asked bakers to create a bread that could be torn by hand. The baguette was born and the need for knives was removed,” smiles Roselyne Laurent, a Parisian working at a garment export company in Delhi.

Irrespective of which origin story you may believe, long, slim breads have undoubtedly existed in France for a long time. But the baguette was christened so only in 1920. The word baguette is, amongst other things, the French expression for a wizard’s wand or a conductor’s baton—the bread simply takes its name from its shape.

Nobody really knows who invented the modern-day baguette, but it’s said that the man who invented the croissant, Vienna-born baker August Zang, aided in the creation of the loaf by installing France’s first steam oven, which allowed for the baking of loaves with a crisp crust and a fluffy centre. The steam oven allowed the crust to expand, which created a lighter and more airy loaf.

So important is the baguette to the French that there is a law governing its creation. “By French law, a baguette must be made with only flour, salt, water and yeast. The size must be 65 cm long, although it can be up to 1 metre long. And, the bread has to be baked on the premises where it is sold. It cannot be frozen and no preservatives can be used,” explains Montay. However, now there are variations where different cereals are added to the wheat, he says.

But for all this precision, making a baguette is a surprisingly simple process. Bakers begin by whisking together water and yeast, then add in the flour and allow a dough to form. The dough is kneaded until it is elastic and smooth. The dough is gently divided, flattened out, and rolled into its signature sausage shape after resting (and doubling in size). It is then baked until golden brown and dusted with flour. An artisanal baguette stays fresh for up to eight hours.

“The baguette to the French is what the roti is to Indians. We eat it every day,” says Montay. However, he adds that Indians are used to softer bread and find the crust of the baguette hard. But that doesn’t stop the baguette from being popular in the country. Complimentary bread baskets at restaurants nearly always have slices of baguettes—to be had with olive oil or as an accompaniment to soup. Baguettes are staples at bakeries across metros such as L’Opera, Theobroma, Suchalis in Delhi; Kitchen Garden by Suzette, Baker’s Dozen, Mag Street Kitchen in Mumbai; and Cafe Noir and Desserted in Bengaluru. They are also available at grocery stores such as Foodhall and Modern Bazaar.

The baguette has inspired everything from art to fashion. In 1997, Fendi launched the Baguette bag named after the way women would carry the French loaf of bread under their arm. The Baguette bag celebrated its 25th anniversary in September during the New York Fashion Week. “It’s not a bag, it’s a baguette!” declared Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in the HBO hit show Sex and the City, in 2000, cementing the Fendi Baguette as a pop-cultural icon.

A test of a baguette’s quality is said to be the crackling sound made when you break a piece of it. But the truly best way to tell if a baguette is good: just eat it. Bon appétit.


Published on: Jan 27, 2023, 6:11 PM IST
Posted by: Arnav Das Sharma, Jan 27, 2023, 6:07 PM IST