Espresso Italiano tradizionale: this is the definition of the coffee Italy wants to present to UNESCO to make it part of its Intangible Heritage List. The candidature proposal was presented on the 2nd of December to the Camera dei Deputati, one of the two Chambers of the Italian Parliament, two years after the art of Naples’ pizzaiuoli made it into the UNESCO list.
The initiative has been promoted by the Consorzio di Tutela del Caffè Espresso Tradizionale, with the aim of valorizing one of Italy’s most iconic products, of which “the originality and uniqueness must be preserved,” as declared by MP Maria Chiara Gadda, representative of the Italia Viva Commissione Agricoltura in the Parliament’s lower Chamber.
When discussing the topic, Gadda underlined how Italian coffee is synonym of “socializing, a true Italian ritual known also outside our national boundaries.” And there is a lot to say also about the history of coffee drinking as we know it today, and the role of Italy in its development and diffusion.
Coffee, we all know it, does not hail from the Belpaese. Known since the Middle Ages by the Arabs, its culture was common in Africa and in the Middle East and it eventually made it into Europe through the Balkans, thanks to the connections between the Ottoman Empire and the West. It seems that the first Italian to try to popularize coffee in the peninsula was Prospero Alpino, a doctor from Padua who brought it back to Venice towards the end of the 16th century. In the Serenissima, caffè was as precious as gold and only the wealthy could afford it, but this didn’t slow its rise to popularity. Its bitter, well rounded flavor, its senses-tingling aroma made it a must-have, so much so specialized stores selling it began sprouting here and there around town: the step to the inauguration of the first coffee shops, or caffè, as we say in Italian, was short.
And it is here, in the association between coffee drinking and a certain type of relaxed, trendy, intellectual socializing that the first essential Italian imprinting on coffee culture must be sought. Italy made coffee a social drink, it made it a pleasure. By 1763, there were 218 caffè in Venice and even the Pope was a fan, in spite of many asking him to ban it, because of how enjoyable it was and — God Forbid — one couldn’t possibly be a good Christian and revel in such a mundane pleasure without ending up in the Devil’s snare.
It is in Italy then, that coffee became something to share with friends and loved ones, but also to savor while discussing politics, art and literature: with the coming of the 19th century, it turned into Italy’s intelligentsia’s favorite drink.
All this developed within and around i caffè, places that soon became as famous as theaters, where decisions were taken, loves were born and friendships made.
In other words, Italy had created modern coffee culture.
Making espresso is a form of art, and it’s all Italian
Indeed, it’s an Italian who invented the first espresso machine: we are talking about Turinese Angelo Moriondo who created it in 1884: his technology was revolutionary because it allowed baristas everywhere to make endless cups of coffee, quickly. After him, other men of great inventive like Luigi Bezzera, Desiderio Pavoni, Pier Teresio Arduino and Achille Gaggia added to the technology, virtually allowing today Italian “bar” and every Starbucks in the world to exist and thrive.
So, here’s another reason why caffè espresso should be considered an Italian thing.
This is all good, but should espresso really become part of Italy’s UNESCO Intangible Heritage.
Some final considerations, inspired by a very interesting article published on the Gambero Rosso website and penned by Michele Becchi. While Italy has been the real motor behind the development of coffee culture up to the second post war period, things have been changing a lot in more recent decades.
If until the 1980s our “bar” and cafés were small, family run businesses, all focused on providing excellence and quality — along with that quintessential home feeling typical of these places — in the 1990s the focus shifted on revenue, with less and less importance placed on the quality of the product. This happened in Italy, while the rest of the world, on the other hand, started looking into making coffee with high quality machines and using high quality beans, maybe even challenging tradition a bit, but all within the canons necessary to make a fantastic brew: basically, the world embraced the original, Italian coffee making philosophy, while Italy lost proper sight of it. At least for a while.
However, Italy eventually caught up with the times, thanks to the influence and the example of other countries, which have carried on the essence of coffee culture even when we were busier churning out tazzine di caffè without thinking much of all that they meant from a cultural and culinary point of view.
Today, the figure of the barista returned to be central and the quality of the beans, as well as the way they are sourced, is paramount. The ubiquitous espresso which, for at least a couple of decades, had become something to drink quickly, almost like an automatic gesture, is again a pleasure in Italy, just as it was four centuries ago, when Prospero Alpino brought the first kava to Venice. We rediscovered the art of making and enjoying good coffee, something we, if not fully invented, certainly developed to the standards known to the world today.
This is why, I think, it would be fair to make espresso Italiano tradizionale part of Italy’s UNESCO Intangible Heritage, but not without acknowledging how the rest of the world, with its immeasurable love for coffee — and Italian style coffee in particular — helped keeping our tradition alive even when we lost our ways a little.
Let’s say that, the day caffè Italiano becomes — if it will — UNESCO heritage, we Italians should offrire un caffè to the world as a big thank you.