Why Italy thinks its coffee should get Unesco heritage status

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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.

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.

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.” 

Photo: Depositphotos

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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