The world's best bakers - and they aren't French

  • 14 February 2016
  • From the section Magazine
South Korean chef at work Image copyright Clementine Bejat / Sabine Serrad

If you want a fresh crusty baguette, Paris would be the obvious place to shop - but the winners of the world's premier baking competition, which was held last week, come from a country usually associated more with fermented cabbage than bread.

It is now official. The best baguettes in the world are made by Koreans. At the Coupe du Monde de Boulangerie - the baking world cup in plain English - the victory of a South Korean team of bakers is clearly a snub to the French.

No doubt about it. After all, the competition describes itself as the planet's "most prestigious bakery contest", and is held in Paris - the capital of the baguette-eating world. President Hollande himself was there to witness his formerly great baking nation eat humble pie.

Image copyright Clementine Bejat / Sabine Serrad
Image caption Some of the baked treats made by the South Korean team

It must have been hard to swallow. Only two years ago, a Korean chain of cafes set up shop in Paris. The Korean company plays on the French theme, with an Eiffel tower logo and staff who wear Breton-style stripy tops.

South Korea went from an agricultural to a prosperous industrial economy in about 50 years, a much faster transition than that of France. Now it's shifting up a gear from plain metal-bashing.

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Image copyright Clementine Bejat / Sabine Serrad
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Paris Baguette, for example, isn't primarily about just making bread, though that is clearly important. It is about branding and style. It's about satisfying a young market with global, fashionable tastes for the trappings of European culture - like baguettes.

South Korean tastes are changing as incomes rise. The graphs tell the story - wheat consumption per head rises by the year and rice consumption falls.

This dietary transition from rice to wheat started when the country began to import wheat from the US to make up for food shortages more than 40 years ago. The US was heavily involved in South Korea and killed two birds with one stone by filling empty Korean stomachs with a product of American farms.

Image copyright Clementine Bejat / Sabine Serrad
Image caption Chang-Min Lee, Jong-Ho Kim and Yong-Joo Park won the competition in Paris - Taiwan came second, and France third

Relations between the sexes are also changing. Men now do more cooking - at least when it's about showing off and public display. The three bakers who won in Paris are men. South Korean television can't get enough cooking programmes - and the celebrity chefs are invariably men.

Food has moved here from a basic fuel to a source of pleasure and recreation. On Saturday mornings in Seoul, you can take part in cookery competitions. I went to one in a school and the kitchen was full of men.

One of the competitors, K H Park, told me how his mother would have been horrified to see him in the kitchen. She banned him from it. "When I was a boy, a boy couldn't even approach the kitchen," he said. He's in his mid-60s and retired four years ago. He tells a very Korean story, about how he went to work in Mongolia for four years without his family and learned to cook as a man far from home on his own. Now, in retirement, he cooks for pleasure.

In the cooking competition I watched, many of the dishes chosen by competitors to show off their skills were Western. There is a switch towards a global cuisine where pizza and steak and, yes, French-style bread are prominent.

Image copyright Clementine Bejat / Sabine Serrad

The other day, I went out for my morning coffee and bread. I had a choice of two places. There is the Artisan Bakery, as it calls itself, with croissants to put Paris to shame. It was set up by a Swiss baker some decades ago but he taught local staff how to bake walnut and raisin loaves and every other French delight.

Instead, though, I chose a cafe across the road. There is a sign on the wall with a dog - it is a dog- friendly cafe. Just like in the trendy parts of the affluent West, pet dogs have become ornaments for the young and moneyed. South Korea follows the West in fashion, and that also means some traditions weaken.

I met a young Korean the other day who rejoiced that the local dog restaurant in her neighbourhood had been turned into a bistro serving fancy coffee. By dog restaurant she meant dog-unfriendly restaurant where dogs come in bowls for customers as soup.

As prosperity changes Korean tastes, these traditional dog-meat restaurants are changing. I suppose they do rather clash with modish Western ways.

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