Why Italy thinks its coffee should get Unesco heritage status

The Italian government has applied for traditional Italian espresso coffee to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. But not everyone is convinced it's a good idea.

Why Italy thinks its coffee should get Unesco heritage status
Photo: DepositPhotos

After Unesco recognised the cultural importance of Neapolitan pizza-making in 2017, Italy now says its coffee too deserves a spot on the list – or at least the traditional way of making and drinking it.

Standing at the bar to drink an espresso coffee has long been seen as part of the fabric of society and a social “leveller” in Italy – something enjoyed by and affordable to almost all.

But some critics of the plan say Italian coffee culture must be allowed to evolve – and that quality must improve.

The Unesco application was finalised this month for the government's nomination of “traditional Italian espresso” for Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

READ ALSO: Italy's Prosecco hills added to Unesco's World Heritage list

The initiative came from the Consortium for the Protection of Traditional Italian Espresso Coffee, “whose originality and peculiarity must be preserved”, according to MP Maria Chiara Gadda,of the Italia Viva party, who spoke as the application was presented in the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

“We know very well how important coffee is to Italians, to Italians living abroad and to people around the world who have learned to appreciate something that is also a ritual and an occasion for meeting,” she stated.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte enjoys an espresso in the Chamber of Deputies. Photo: AFP

Today Italians are drinking more coffee than ever – the annual per capita consumption of coffee in Italy went up by 5.3 percent in 2018 to 5.9 kilograms, according to the Ansa news agency. 95 percent of Italians drink it habitually.

However, Finland, not Italy, is the country that holds the European record for coffee consumption.

But those behind the Unesco application said the thing that sets Italian coffee apart from other types drunk in Finland, Turkey, or anywhere else where coffee-drinking is common and traditional, is its crema, the “cream” on the surface of any good Italian espresso coffee.
La crema, according to the regulations drafted by the consortium, “must be uniform and persistent for at least 120 seconds from the time the coffee has been dispensed without stirring.”
The cream must also be “consistent, a dark hazel color, with light streaks.”
Photo: Depositphotos
For it to be “traditional”, the espresso must be made by a trained barista using a bar's coffee machine. The coffee must be freshly ground, and brewed for exactly 20 to 27 seconds.
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.
Stove-top Moka coffee makers and capsule coffee machines don't count, despite both being widely used in Italian homes, as they don't follow the particular method outlined by the committee.
While coffee lovers worldwide may support the proposal, some Italian food blogs were quick to pour cold water on the idea.
“The Italian espresso, the one we all know, is not good, even if you like it,” writes Nunzia Clemente at the well-known food blog Dissapore, saying the Unesco application “doesn't make sense” and citing the problems caused by coffee sold at a “ridiculously low price.”
Every cup must “fall within the symbolic price of one euro, beyond which the consumer is indignant,” she writes.
Clemente slams the resulting poor quality of espresso and the ethical issues caused as many bars fight to keep prices down, adding that producers and others in the coffee supply chain are often underpaid.
And Michela Becchi writes on the Gambero Rosso food website's blog that the Unesco application should be looked at “critically.”
Coffee is “a speciality to be enjoyed free from the constraints of alleged tradition,” she writes.
Becchi points out that some Italian baristas are now “offering a new way of drinking and conceiving coffee: as a beverage to be sipped and savoured calmly, and no longer as a gesture to be repeated mechanically.”
“True, espresso is Italian history and traditions must be preserved, but they cannot – they must not – become a cage.”
The application must now be assessed by UNESCO before a decision is made, possibly as early as 2020.

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La Bella Vita: Exploding myths about Italian food and how to make words smaller

From making sense of Italian grammar to understanding what's seen as 'authentic' Italian food, our weekly newsletter La Bella Vita offers you an essential starting point for eating, talking, drinking and living like an Italian.

La Bella Vita: Exploding myths about Italian food and how to make words smaller

La Bella Vita is our regular look at the real culture of Italy – from language to cuisine, manners to art. This new newsletter will be published weekly and you can receive it directly to your inbox, by going to newsletter preferences in ‘My Account’ or follow the instructions in the newsletter box below.

*If you signed up for La Bella Vita newsletter but did not receive it this week please email [email protected]

Everyone in Italy is talking about Italian food this week. Not unusual, I know. But this time, it’s mainly because the government has announced plans to put Italian food forward for Unesco intangible cultural heritage status. This led many people to ask exactly which dishes would be included in the bid – and how exactly do you define ‘Italian food’, anyway?

One highly influential and controversial contribution to this debate came in the form of an interview published in the Financial Times with Italian food historian Alberto Grandi, who “has dedicated his career to debunking the myths around Italian food”. In it, Grandi made bold claims including that panettone and tiramisù were postwar inventions which relied on industrial processes or ingredients; carbonara is more American than Italian; and pizza was unknown in most parts of Italy before the 1970s.

It’s safe to say these ideas didn’t go down well at all with most Italians. In the below article, reporter Silvia Marchetti explains why the interview caused such a big public outcry and why she believes such claims ignore “millennia of rich food heritage”.

Why claims Italian cuisine is a ‘modern invention’ have angered Italy

Whatever you think of Grandi’s argument that the popular idea of Italian cuisine today is based chiefly on postwar advertising and political propaganda, there’s one thing everyone can probably agree on: there really are an awful lot of misconceptions out there about what constitutes traditional or authentic Italian cuisine.

Here are a few such ideas that you’ve probably encountered, and a look at why they can be safely discarded:

Four myths about ‘traditional’ Italian food you can stop believing

Neapolitan pizza. Is there any truth to claims that pizza was unknown in most of Italy until the 1970s? Photo by Nik Owens on Unsplash

And if you’re in Italy at the moment, have you noticed that things feel a little different lately?

Not only are the days brighter, but once the temperatures rise over 15C towns and cities seem to burst back to life after being (slightly) quieter over winter. Aperitivo hour moves outside, there are more motorini zipping up and down the streets, and there’s a spring-cleaning frenzy as homes are cleaned from top to bottom and wardrobes overhauled in preparation for la bella stagione.

Here are some of the sure-fire signs that spring has arrived in Italy:

Eight signs that spring has arrived in Italy

Easter is coming up and it is of course a very important celebration in overwhelmingly Catholic Italy, marked across the country by countless processions and events, plenty of good food, and hopefully some good weather too. Here’s a rundown of everything to expect during an Italian Easter:

The essential guide to Easter in Italy

One thing that makes Italian such a beautiful – and complicated – language is the large number of different suffixes which tack on to the ending of words and change their meaning. A common type is the diminutive suffix, which is the type of word ending that makes a thing smaller, or maybe cuter (think gattino, libricino, or fiorellino).

But as pretty as they sound, these endings don’t always seem to have much logic behind them. Here’s what you need to know about ‘shrinking’ Italian words.

Etto, ino, ello: How to make Italian words smaller

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Is there an aspect of the Italian way of life you’d like to see us write more about on The Local? Please email me at [email protected]