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FOOD & DRINK

Let them eat bread: the origins of the French baguette

More than six billion baguettes are baked each year in France and UNESCO has now inscribed the tradition in its “intangible cultural heritage” list.

Let them eat bread: the origins of the French baguette
(Photo by Fred TANNEAU / AFP)

The French baguette – one of the country’s most abiding images – was given world heritage status by UNESCO on Wednesday, the organisation announced.

READ ALSO French baguette gets UNESCO world heritage status

Here are some of the more popular theories:

Napoleon’s Bread of War
The oldest tale has the baguette being kneaded by bakers in Napoleon’s army. Less bulky than a traditional loaf, the long slim shape of the baguette made it faster to bake in brick ovens hastily erected on the battlefield.

France’s most famous man of war was preoccupied with getting his men their daily bread.

During his Russian campaign in 1812, he toured the ovens daily to sample the day’s offering and ensure the crusty batons were being distributed regularly, according to historian Philippe de Segur.

He also had portable bread mills sent to occupied Moscow, but the setbacks suffered by the Grande Armee in one of the deadliest military campaigns in history ended his bid to export the doughy staple.

Viennese connection
Another theory has the baguette starting out in a Viennese bakery in central Paris in the late 1830s.

Artillery officer and entrepreneur August Zang brought Austria’s culinary savoir-faire to Paris in the form of the oval-shaped bread that were standard in his country at the time.

According to the Compagnonnage des boulangers et des patissiers, the French bakers’ network, Zang decided to make the loaves longer to make them easier for the city’s breadwomen to pluck from the big carts they pushed through the city’s streets.

Breaking bread
Another theory has the baguette being born at the same time as the metro for the 1900 Paris Exposition.

People from across France came to work on the underground and fights would often break out on site between labourers armed with knives, which they used to slice big round loaves of bread for lunch.

According to the herodote.net history site, to avoid bloodshed, one engineer had the idea of ordering longer loaves that could be broken by hand.

Early rising
In 1919, a new law aimed to improve the lives of bakers by banning them from working from 10 pm to 4 am.

The reform gave them less time to prepare the traditional sourdough loaf for the morning, marked the widespread transition to what was called at the
time the yeast-based “flute”, which rose faster and was out of the oven in under half an hour.

Standardised at 80 centimeters (30 inches) and 250 grams (eight ounces) with a fixed price until 1986, the baguette was initially the mainstay of wealthy metropolitans, but after World War II became the emblem of all French people.

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CULTURE

French MP abandons bid to ban bullfighting

A bid to ban bullfighting in France has been abandoned, to the relief of lovers of the traditional blood sport and dismay for animal rights' activists.

French MP abandons bid to ban bullfighting

The 577-seat National Assembly had looked set to vote on draft legislation that would have made the practice illegal.

But the MP behind the bill withdrew it after lawmakers filed more than 500 amendments, many of them designed to take up parliamentary time and obstruct the vote.

“I’m so sorry,” Aymeric Caron, a La France insoumise (LFI) MP and animal rights’ campaigner, told the national assembly as he announced the decision in raucous and bad-tempered scenes.

Though public opinion is firmly in favour of outlawing the practice, the bill had already been expected to be rejected by a majority of lawmakers who
are wary about stirring up the bullfighting heartlands in the south of the country.

“We need to go towards a conciliation, an exchange,” President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday, adding that he did not expect the draft law to pass. “From where I am sitting, this is not a current priority.”

His government has urged members of the ruling centrist coalition not to support the text from the opposition LFI, even though many members are known to personally favour it.

During a first debate of the parliament’s law commission last week, a majority voted against the proposal by Caron, who denounced the “barbarism” of a tradition that was imported from Spain in the 1850s.

“Caron has antagonised people instead of trying to smooth it over,” a lawmaker from Macron’s party told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The bill proposed modifying an existing law penalising animal cruelty to remove exemptions for bullfights that can be shown to be “uninterrupted local
traditions”.

These are granted in towns such as Bayonne and Mont-de-Marsan in south west France and along the Mediterranean coast including Arles, Beziers and Nîmes.

Around 1,000 bulls are killed each year in France, according to the Observatoire National des Cultures Taurines.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: Could bullfighting finally be banned in France?

Many so-called “bull towns” depend on the shows for tourism and see the culture of bull-breeding and the spectacle of the fight as part of their way of life – idolised by artists from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso.

They organised demonstrations last Saturday, while animal rights protesters gathered in Paris – highlighting the north-south and rural-versus-Paris divide at the heart of the debate.

“Caron, in a very moralising tone, wants to explain to us, from Paris, what is good or bad in the south,” the mayor of Mont-de-Marsan, Charles Dayot, told AFP recently.

Other defenders of “la Corrida” in France view the focus on the sport as hypocritical when factory farms and industrial slaughter houses are overlooked.

“These animals die too and we don’t talk enough about it,” said Dalia Navarro, who formed the pro-bullfighting group Les Andalouses in southern Arles.

Modern society “has more and more difficulty in accepting seeing death. But la Corrida tackles death, which is often a taboo subject,” she told AFP.

Previous judicial attempts to outlaw bullfighting have repeatedly failed, with courts routinely rejecting lawsuits lodged by animal rights activists, most recently in July 2021 in Nîmes.

The debate in France about the ethics of killing animals for entertainment is echoed in other countries with bullfighting histories, including Spain and Portugal as well as Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela.

In June, a judge in Mexico City ordered an indefinite suspension of bullfighting in the capital’s historic bullring, the largest in the world.

The first bullfight took place in France in 1853 in Bayonne to honour Eugenie de Montijo, the Spanish wife of Napoleon III.

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