Savoured, cherished and protected: the Italian art of espresso

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Italian life centres around coffee. Whether it’s the punchy awakening of an espresso ‘al bar’ in the morning or the sound of a Bialetti percolating after lunch, coffee unites Italians of all ages. Given that 98% of Italians drink it, the Italian government’s latest campaign to obtain international recognition for the national drink is not surprising. On Thursday 21st January, the Agriculture Undersecretary announced that they are one step closer to securing a place for espresso on UNESCO’s list of ‘intangible cultural heritage’, which would guarantee its protection and confirm its status as an undeniable symbol of Italian culture. The Undersecretary, Gian Marco Centinaio, highlighted the universal appreciation for espresso within Italy, explaining that ‘a cup of espresso represents a social and cultural ritual for all Italians… [it] excites the entire country, from Naples to Venice and Trieste, via Rome and Milan.’ 

If approved by UNESCO in Paris this coming March, espresso will join multiple Italian traditions already designated as ‘intangible cultural heritage’, including the Mediterranean and the art of the pizzaiuolo (Neapolitan pizza makers). The list records cultural traditions from all over the world, going beyond typical demonstrations of heritage to include practices such as falconry, dances and dry-stone walling. With over 600 elements and 139 countries featured, UNESCO aims to recognise intangible cultural heritage as ‘an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalisation.’ Granting a place to the ritual of espresso will ensure its protection and, crucially, will maintain its link to Italy.

Despite espresso originating in Turin in the nineteenth-century, it is remarkable that nowadays the biggest coffee and espresso companies do not originate from the Italian peninsula. Borrowing its name from the Italian drink, Nespresso is actually a Swiss company and the global, corporate coffee chains that litter city streets are frequently American in origin. The saccharin, milky, complicated coffees are a far cry from the elegant espresso enjoyed by Italians every day and this indicates why espresso needs to be labelled intangible cultural heritage. While these coffee creations are delicious, their existence points to a possible bastardisation of such a treasured Italian tradition. Drinking a flat white is (rightly!) not a crime, but we should correctly recognise the origins and cultural practices in which our food is rooted. As an au pair living in Bologna this past summer, I saw how an espresso was savoured after our pasta lunch and the children also got involved and tried it. The daily ritual was comforting and cherished. It was worlds away from sipping a lukewarm, bitter coffee from a non-recyclable paper cup on the crowded morning commute…

The saccharin, milky, complicated coffees are a far cry from the elegant espresso enjoyed by Italians everyday

Such a campaign for espresso’s protection is no surprise. Italians are fiercely proud of their food and drink, and rightly so. With DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) products all over our supermarket shelves, we seem to buy into their high food standards, too. From San Marzano tomatoes to Parmeggiano Reggiano and Gorgonzola, we import many protected Italian foods, but it’s only a fraction of what Italy has to offer. Perhaps at the expense of profits, Italy is rigidly strict on the production of hundreds of foods, as the DOP label attests. If you buy Parmeggiano Reggiano DOP, you know that it has been made in accordance with tradition; every step is regulated. Such a rigorous process is essential because forgery of Italy’s prized products is rife and presents a real threat to their economy. According to the OCSE (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), forgery of Made In Italy products earned €32 million in 2018, income which does not stimulate the Italian economy but flows into the wallets of overseas exploiters and the mafia. It is no wonder, then, that Italy seeks to protect the treasured and socially invaluable tradition of espresso.

Thanks to Italy, we too can enjoy an invigorating espresso. However, the amicable culture of ‘facendo due chiacchiere’ (having a chat) over a morning espresso at the bar before work is yet to permeate our comparatively more subdued morning routine. The country’s current bid to recognise espresso as more than a drink, privileging it as an essential element of Italian culture, is therefore warranted. At a time when we have rediscovered the joy of simple pleasures after Covid put a stop to all socialisation, a celebration of friendly meetings and familial conversations over the pasta dishes is a practice worth protecting. Espresso thus epitomises Italian tradition, combining masterful craft with a sociable, personal experience; it is a tradition that we are lucky to take part in from our corner of the world.

Image credit: Sonerkose (via Pixabay)

One thought on “Savoured, cherished and protected: the Italian art of espresso

  • Watching Italians down a Demitasse-sized cup of Espresso in one second on my first trip to Milan put me off the potent joe but now that I‘ve read Ms Kile’s excellent article I’m going to try the stuff again. Now where did I store my old Espresso stove top boiler?

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