Flour, water, salt and yeast. Nothing more, nothing less. The recipe for the popular French loaf of bread, the baguette tradition, has been protected since 1993 by a French decree. It was signed by the then Prime Minister Édouard Balladur to ensure its survival in the face of the multiplication of industrial production. A reflection that in France, where 12 million people cross the door of a bakery every day, bread is much more than food: it has structured part of its identity.
Vivien Bailleux, 35, places the dough she made the day before in a machine. One by one the elongated forms of the baguettes and he arranges them on a black cloth to let them rest. Then he will bake them. “What is needed is time,” he explains in the back room of his bakery in Paris. At eight in the morning the first batch is ready. He prepares about 300 baguettes a day and knows that the important thing is that they are fresh and freshly made. “Losing customers can go really fast,” she says as he places them in a wicker basket.
With the inscription of the baguette On the list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity on November 30, Unesco wanted to value the know-how of bakers, but also the culture around it. “There was talk of the baguette, but in reality it is about bread”, points out Éric Birlouez, a sociologist of agriculture and food who participated in the scientific commission that led the candidacy to the United Nations organization. Bread is “one of the foods that we, the French, consider part of our heritage beyond food,” he explains by phone. Agrees Abdu Gnaba, an anthropologist who precisely studied this relationship and discovered that bread has “such an evocative power that allows everyone to connect with each other or with the territory.” “The French don’t talk about bread as a product, they tell it as a story,” he adds.
The role of bakeries
“There’s no croissants!” an employee yells at Bailleux. She has everything ready, everything calculated. His wife, Gaelle Millaud, 39, prepares mixed sandwiches. At noon, the line at this bakery is made up not only of the people of the neighborhood, but of those who work nearby.
“The bakery is often the first place I go to in the morning when leaving home,” says Adèle Tourte, 31. When evoking it, she mentions two particular sounds: the doorbell and the “good morning” from the vendor. “That ‘good morning’ is what really starts the day. It means: you are not alone ”, she reflects at the doors of the premises after her purchase.
Analyzing French identity and history through bread implies understanding the role that these establishments play or have played. “They are perceived as safe and warm places,” says Birlouez. They usually go to the ones that are close to home and, many times, they are places where you can post announcements or leave your keys. They also tend to awaken a common memory, that of the first act of autonomy: going to look for bread as a child. “One remembers a lot when his parents told him: take these coins. Today you are the one who will go looking for bread”, explains the sociologist. Just like the boy in the photo taken in 1952 by Willy Ronis, who went around the world.
The bakery has been the most present local business in France for centuries, emphasizes Steven Laurence Kaplan, an American historian who has spent more than 50 years researching the French country’s relationship with bread. In the 1950s, there were some 60,000 bakeries in the country, “much more than in Spain or Germany,” he highlights in an email. The network contributed to “weaving social ties between the different populations of the neighborhoods”, he points out. In his research, Kaplan underlines the key role that bread played in the formation of society and the construction of the State. “All of French social history is one persistent popular movement demanding white bread and wheat for all,” he explains. Bread is “inseparable from the history of France” and “embodies one of the many stories that make up its heritage, undoubtedly the one that most people touch on a daily basis,” he writes in his book pour le pain (2020, Fayard).
Its consumption, however, has been reduced over the years. After World War II, a person consumed about 900 grams a day. Today, just about 94 grams, according to the French National Confederation of Bakeries and Pastry Shops.
Automatic bread dispensers
The Bailleux bakery is small, but cosy. The loaves are displayed on black iron shelves in front of a mirror. The common bar costs 1 euro. The tradition, 1.20 euro. But prices will increase 10 cents next January due to the rise in electricity and raw materials. “We have no other choice,” says the young baker. Until 1987, the price of this food was set by the State. Its liberalization brought several moments of commotion. The last one occurred last year, when the supermarket chain E. Leclerc launched a baguette at 0.29 euros, a third of what it costs in a traditional bakery.
The inscription of the baguette in Unesco it also seeks to sound the alarm in the face of the decline in artisan bakeries. Every year about 400 disappear, according to the Confederation of Bakeries. In 1970 there was one for every 790 inhabitants. Currently, the figure is one for every 2,000 inhabitants. The rural world is the most affected and in some towns there are only automatic bread distributors left. In France they call these areas the “deserts boulangers” (bakery deserts).
The food observatory also highlights that for 10 years the number of bakeries has increased again, but the data is explained above all by the development of franchises.
At four in the morning, an enveloping smell is already emanating from the Bailleux bakery. “If bread no longer tells its story, if it is only seen as a material element, it risks disappearing from French customs,” says anthropologist Abdu Gnaba.