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UNESCO and ‘labels’ to safeguard typical cuisine

Much marketing and little substance.


There is recent news that a priority of the mayor of Florence is the inclusion of Florentine-style steak (bistecca alla fiorentina) on the UNESCO world heritage list.
Riding the success of his Neapolitan counterpart, he contacted him for insights on how he obtained the coveted title, not for pizza itself, mind you, but for the art of the Neapolitan pizza maker, since Neapolitan pizza is a typical food of the city of Naples, prepared using methods, traditions and gestures which make it culturally unique, with a worldwide influence which far transcends the city’s confines.
The enthralling fashion for cuisine, which attracts and fascinates us, may make us forget or overlook tradition and history. It is true that the steak to be had in Florence is often delicious, but it is nonetheless a grilled beef rib steak (which, moreover, is also equally excellent in New York under the name of T-bone steak or Porterhouse). The term bistecca - ‘steak’ - is relatively recent (from the first half of the 19th century) and its preparation technique more recent still: one need only consult Artusi and other cookbooks of the time to realise that the Florentine steak of today has little in common with its early 20th-century incarnation. All told, from the cultural perspective, it is rather overdone for the benefit of food and wine tourism. Fair enough! We Italians, it must be said, are lovers of ‘labels’: labelling is an obsession of ours, as demonstrated by our staggering number of labelled and certified products. One cannot help wondering what is the purpose of many such labels beyond marketing.
In 2010, UNESCO recognised the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ on its cultural heritage list, attributed, rightly enough, to Italy, but also to Morocco, Spain and Greece; and since these were evidently too few countries, in 2013 the privilege was extended to Cyprus, Croatia and Portugal. An operation with zero practical utility.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known by its acronym ‘UNESCO’, was founded in 1945 with the aim of promoting peace and understanding among nations through education, science, communication and information.
One of UNESCO’s missions is that of maintaining a world heritage list. Since 2004, UNESCO promotes the Creative Cities Network, to which nine Italian cities belong, often with odd rationales (Turin, design; Bologna, music); fortunately Parma and Alba are in the ‘gastronomy’ category. Practical usefulness: none. Of course, Italy is the nation having the greatest number of UNESCO heritage sites (54 sites).
The oral and intangible heritage of humanity consists of ancient traditions which often have no written codification but are passed orally down the generations. UNESCO has set itself the task of safeguarding these treasures to prevent their loss, just as it is already doing for material culture. But neither pizza nor steak run the risk of extinction. In concrete terms, these lists, denominations and labels have little use: if anything they have the purpose of generating copy for a few newspapers and work for many bureaucrats while justifying the existence of agencies and organisations. In any case, in the end something good and substantially useful has been wrought, especially in the artisanal field (cheese, cured meats, oils, wines), but everything depends on consumers’ discernment and producers’ honesty.

Paolo Petroni
President of the Accademia

October 2018