The baguette’s creation is the source of many urban legends: Napoleon’s bakers supposedly created it as a lighter and more portable loaf for the troops; Parisian bakers were said to have made it a rippable consistency to stop knife fights between factions building the city’s subway system (who could rip the bread apart with their bare hands and did not need knives to cut it).
In truth, historians say, the bread developed gradually — elongated loaves were already being produced by French bakers in 1600. Originally considered a bread for better-off Parisians who could afford to buy a product that went stale quickly, unlike the peasant’s heavy, round miche that could last a week — the baguette became a staple in the French countryside only after World War II, said Bruno Laurioux, a French historian specializing in medieval food.
But it was not the French who initially tied the baguette to French identity.
“The first to talk about how the French were eating baguettes — this very strange and different bread — were tourists at the beginning of the 20th century who came to Paris,” said Mr. Laurioux, who led the academic committee overseeing the baguette’s pitch to UNESCO. “It was an outsiders’ view that tied the French identity to the baguette.”
Since then, the French have embraced it, hosting an annual competition outside the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris to judge the best baguette creator in the country. The winner, announced with flourish, wins not just prestige, but also a yearlong contract to serve the Élysée Palace, where the president resides and works.
The baguette’s ingredients are limited to four: flour, water, salt and yeast. But specialty yeasts were developed to inspire the bread’s long fermentation stage; special knives are used to score its surface, creating the trademark golden color; and long-handled wooden paddles are deployed to gently remove the bread from the ovens. The baguette is eaten fresh, so most boulangeries make more than one batch a day.
The American-French historian Steven Kaplan, perhaps the baguette’s most dedicated and famous chronicler, stunned the talk-show host Conan O’Brien on “The Late Show” in 2007 when he rhapsodized about the sensual experience of touching and eating a good baguette, with its “appealing line,” “geyser of aromas” and air pockets, and the “little sites of memories” that “testify to a sensuality.”