H.G. has a beautiful bronze medal, finished with French blue enamel, from the Institute International de la Boulangerie; a five-pointed star hangs from a blue enameled crown, which hangs from a blue ribbon.
In the very center, we see a figure of St Honoré, patron of bakers, who holds a wooden bread trowel. She has always wondered about the medal’s role in competitive baking, as it looks like it must be a 19th-century award, and as she is a huge fan of the “Great British Bake Off.”
Indeed, baking has been a competition sport for centuries, H.G. This award dating from 1899 proves that.
Best as I can research, this medal was presented to a wonderful baker who attended the early Cordon Bleu School, founded in Paris in 1895. Medals similar to this are given upon graduation from various expertise courses, which we will describe later in the article. This medal was given for baking, of course.
How popular is baking as a competitive spectator sport? Look at the “Great British Bake Off,” airing since 2010-2022 (contract has been re-signed), which reinvigorated the sales of breads in Britain and the U.S, spawning other shows like it, such as the “Junior Bake Off” and “Bake Off: The Professional.”
The show had the highest audience ever on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2020 at 10 million views on average, and on Netflix, it was the fifth most streamed show in 2020. The BBC heard 800 complaints about the treatment of a loser in a scandal called “BinGate.”
This medal, which was one of a kind in 1899, is not one of its kind today. There are numerous high level baking competitions — the most notable perhaps the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangeries, Paris, in which one can win a gold, silver or bronze medal for different types of breads, and The Louis Lasaffre Cup, and,The World Cup of Baking, held in conjunction with Europain (a convention for the culinary world of 80,000 visitors each year). There’s also the Assembly of Extraordinary Bakers, founded in 2016, and, the Intergalactic Baker’s Federation, as well as The IBA Cup Bread Baker’s European Cup.
And there was the establishment of the Society of the Elite de la Boulangerie International in 1992 by the director of the Ecole Françoise de Boulangerie d’Aurillac. A leader in the education of French Bakers, director Christian Vabret was quoted as forming his competitions and schools because of the worldwide decline in bread quality.
Intense competition around baking originated in the small shops in Paris on the Rive Gauche, the left bank of the River Seine, where from the 17th century various small specialty food shops rivaled. Americans think of a bakery as having baked goods; on the Rive Gauche, there’s two shops or more for such goods, the Boulangerie for your baguettes etc., and the Patisserie, for your pastries and tarts and croissants.
Medals like H.G.’s were given as far back as the mid-19th century in various categories of baking specialties, and the Coupe du Monde echoes these: 12 teams gather each year from 12 countries, each team of three members; one member specializes in Baguettes, one in artistic design, one in Viennoiseries (puff pastry), and then all three get together to create a sandwich.
And they get a big medal for winning. It’s the size of a huge loaf of bread.
Le Cordon Bleu is the largest of the world’s culinary and hospitality schools, teaching at least 100 nationalities in 20 countries from 35 institutes, with approximately 20,000 students a year.
They consider themselves the guardians of French culinary technique, and award the Grand Diplome to students that achieve high honors in both cuisine and patisserie. Or a student can specialize in just cuisine, or just pastry and confectionery. This concentration teaches specialized atelier techniques, advanced pastry, confection craft, decoration, and boutique/ international areas.
Another diploma offers just bakery: Danish and artisan breads, focusing on French bread, specialty Danish and regional advanced yeast production methods.
H.G.’s medal was given for baking back in 1899, and the person who won had very little sleep in his/her future. This was a medal given for not “bucket” baking, but doing all from scratch with the best ingredients, allowing lots of time. For example, it is said that a good croissant takes at least 18 hours, with at least a crew of 12 working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I would think that due to the popularity of baking today, this medal would be worth at least $250!
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.