Italy bids for UNESCO status for traditional Italian espresso (again)

Italy has put in another application for traditional Italian espresso to receive UNESCO heritage status after its nomination was derailed last year by competing bids from Naples and Treviso.

Could Italy's espresso coffee tradition receive Unesco recognition?
Could Italy's espresso coffee tradition receive Unesco recognition?  Photo by Chase Eggenberger on Unsplash

Deputy agricultural minister Gian Marco Centinaio announced on Thursday that Italy’s Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies had unanimously approved the application and delivered it to the Italian National Unesco Commission for review.

The commission must in turn submit to Unesco’s Paris headquarters by March 31st for the nomination to be considered.

Centinaio said in his statement that he was confident Italy’s candidacy would be accepted by the commission, Sky TG24 reports.

“In Italy, coffee is much more than a simple drink: it is an authentic ritual, it is an integral part of our national identity and an expression of our social relationships that distinguishes us around the world,” Centinaio said.

“The cup of espresso represents for all Italians a social and cultural ritual that is also reflected in literature and that fascinates the whole country, from Naples to Venice to Trieste passing through Rome and Milan.”

READ ALSO: Why Italy thinks its coffee should get Unesco heritage status

Italy’s candidacy was derailed last year when it transpired that two separate applications had been made for Unesco recognition of the espresso coffee tradition: one by the Consortium for the Protection of Traditional Italian Espresso Coffee in Treviso, representing all of Italy, and the other by the Region of Campania, representing Naples.

One academic who worked on Campania’s bid decried the Treviso consortium’s application as “an act of war by the north against the south”, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, while the consortium’s founder Giorgio Caballini denounced Naples’ attempt to assert ownership over Italian espresso as “unacceptable”.

The spat culminated in Italy’s Unesco committee disallowing both candidacies and telling the groups to apply again as a united front the following year.

A man enjoys an espresso at an outdoor cafe in Rome.
A man enjoys an espresso at an outdoor cafe in Rome. Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

This time around, it appears the warring factions have managed to resolve their differences.

Commenting on the application, Campania’s Agriculture Commissioner and regional councillor Francesco Emilio Borrelli said: “After months of discussions and discussions, we managed to find a synthesis between the two proposals that had been presented and that at first had seemed irreconcilable,” reports the news site Fanpage.

READ ALSO: How Italy came to be Europe’s coffee capital

The ‘Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ Unesco recognition sought by Italy is not for the espresso drink itself, but for the traditional process by which it is made.

According to the regulations drafted by the consortium, in order to be real espresso the crema on top “must be uniform and persistent for at least 120 seconds from the time the coffee has been dispensed without stirring,” and should be “a dark hazel colour, with light streaks.”

The coffee must be freshly ground and brewed for exactly 20 to 27 seconds, and the espresso must be made by a trained barista using a bar’s coffee machine.
There are also rules on the type of cup used (porcelain with a narrow bottom), amount of coffee in the cup (between 13 and 26 grams) and the temperature, which must be between 90 and 96 degrees Celsius.
There are detailed rules as to what constitutes a traditional Italian espresso.

There are detailed rules as to what constitutes a traditional Italian espresso. Photo by Enis Yavuz on Unsplash 
However, some Italian food and drink commentators are wary of the espresso’s quest for UNESCO recognition.
Writing on the event of Italy’s 2019 Unesco application, Michela Becchi, a journalist for the well-known Italian food blog Gambero Rosso, warned that Italian food traditions like this one risked becoming a ‘cage’.
Coffee is “a speciality to be enjoyed free from the constraints of alleged tradition,” she wrote.
Writing for the food blog Dissapore, Nunzia Clemente was more outspoken, blaming public pressure to keep the price of an espresso under a euro for what she judges to be the poor quality of Italian espresso coffee.
“The Italian espresso, the one we all know, is not good, even if you like it,” Clemente wrote in 2019, adding that a Unesco application “doesn’t make sense”.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

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Why did Italy choose opera over espresso in its bid for Unesco status?

Italy has put another pillar of national culture forward for inclusion on the UN agency's list of intangible global heritage - but it's not the art of making coffee, as many had hoped.

Why did Italy choose opera over espresso in its bid for Unesco status?

Music or coffee? This was essentially the tough choice Italy’s National Committee for Unesco was faced with when deciding which treasured Italian art form to recommend for recognition this year.

In the end, the committee on Monday chose to put forward the art of opera singing as the country’s candidate – meaning the art of making espresso coffee will not be considered for addition to the list alongside Neapolitan pizza-making after all.

On announcing the decision, the committee did not give any reason for its selection though said the much-discussed and somewhat controversial application for the candidacy of espresso coffee had been “highly appreciated”.

“With the candidacy of the Italian opera to the world’s intangible heritage, Italy is aiming to get recognition for one of its most authentic and original cultural expressions,” said culture minister Dario Franceschini after the committee’s decision.

“Italian opera singing is an integral part of the world’s cultural patrimony, which provides light, strength and beauty in the darkest hours”.

A performance of Puccini’s 1900 opera ‘Tosca’ at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.

The announcement came as a boost for those working in opera houses and theatres across Italy after the Italian arts an cultural sector was hit hard by pandemic-related closures.

Italy has around 60 opera houses – the most in the world.

“Opera was born in Italy,” said Stephane Lissner, the French director of the San Carlo theatre in Naples, which opened in 1737 and claims to be the world’s oldest opera house.

“In the 19th century, when you arrived in any Italian town, the entire population sang opera arias. It was normal,” he told AFP.

Compared to France or Germany, he said: “Italy is different, Italian theatres are different… and if you go into the villages, they’re not even towns, you find small theatres.”

In Italy, lyrical music “is not just reserved for the elite”, he added, although he said “the majority of the public cannot pay certain ticket prices and has been abandoned”, which he said was a “huge error”.

In contrast, Italian coffee is an everyday pleasure enjoyed by the majority of the population – and the price of an espresso is kept below the symbolic threshold of one euro at most local bars due to the widespread belief that the drink should be  accessible to all.

READ ALSO: Where, when and how to drink coffee like an Italian

In fact, it’s not unusual for people to avoid bars that charge more than one euro for un caffè normale, even if that’s for a better-quality cup – with some reports of customers even complaining to the police about being charged higher prices for artisanal or specialist coffees. 

But this focus on keeping the price of Italian coffee low may be part of the reason the Unesco bid was rejected, according to food writer Nunzia Clemente in Naples.

“90-cent coffee shouldn’t make us proud,” Clemente wrote in a post on Italian food blog Dissapore.

Pointing to examples of corner-cutting by bar owners struggling to make a profit, she said “the final result is, half the time, bad to say the least”.

Unesco’s ruling on the bid for recognition of opera is due at the end of the year.