Will Espresso Finally Be Recognized as Part of Italy's Cultural Heritage?

Italy has once again applied for UNESCO status for its famous espresso. 

A cup of fresh espresso coffee in a cafe with view in Naples, Campania, Italy
Photo: Getty Images

For the second time in two years, Italy is submitting an application to UNESCO in the hopes that the agency will add espresso to its official list of cultural practices and expressions of intangible heritage. Last week, Italy's Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies unanimously approved the application and, if it's OK'ed by the Italian National Unesco Commission, then it will be sent to UNESCO's headquarters for the final decision.

"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," deputy agricultural minister Gian Marco Centinaio said, according to The Local. "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."

UNESCO gave Italy the thumbs down last year, not because it deemed espresso unworthy of being recognized as an "Intangible Heritage of Humanity," but because two separate agencies sent in their own applications, and both of them tried to claim espresso as their own.

Last spring, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Consortium for the Protection of Traditional Italian Espresso Coffee applied on behalf of the entire country, in an attempt to "celebrate the ritual around Italian coffee-drinking and the Italian way of making espresso." Meanwhile, the Region of Campania's paperwork expressed its belief that espresso is an integral part of Neapolitan culture. Regardless, UNESCO rejected both applications and recommended that they join forces to reapply this year.

The two groups seem to have worked it out for the benefit of their shared beverage. "After months of discussions, we managed to find a synthesis between the two proposals that had been presented," Francesco Emilio Borrelli, the president of the Campania Region's Agriculture Commission said last week, adding that "at first they seemed irreconcilable."

UNESCO has already added more than a dozen Italian cultural practices to its "Intangible" list, including the art of the Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo, Sicilian puppet theater, and the Mediterranean diet. And last year, UNESCO placed Italian truffle hunting and extraction on its list.

"Truffle hunting involves a wide range of skills and knowledge (about climate, the environment and vegetation) related to the management of natural ecosystems and to the dog-truffle hunter relationship," UNESCO wrote. "This knowledge is passed on through oral traditions, including stories, fables, anecdotes and expressions that reflect the local cultural identity and create a sense of solidarity within the truffle hunting community."

Whether or not Italian espresso becomes an official symbol of Italy's heritage, it's still going to be the go-to daily pick-me-up for a tremendous number of Italians. It's hard to imagine that part ever changing, UNESCO or not.

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