At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much connection between the French baguette, the Japanese ritual furyu-odori dances, a North Korean cold noodle dish called naengmyeon, Pyrenean bear festivities, and Kun L’bokator, Cambodia’s traditional martial arts.
But all have just been recognized as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by a 24-member Unesco committee, which met in Rabat this week to consider whether 56 proposed “human treasures” deserve to be added to the 600 that are already on the list.
UNESCO just made the French baguette part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and the French delegation is wild beyond it pic.twitter.com/s1UbutiVBZ
— Jules Darmanin (@JulesDrmnn) Nov 30, 2022
Other contenders include Georgia’s traditional equestrian games, the hot chili pepper paste from the Maghreb known as harissa, Serbia’s šljivovica plum brandy, oral camel calls in Saudi Arabia and Oman, and a central Asian lute called the Rubāb.
France greeted the announcement that the “craft know-how and culture of baguette bread” had been inscribed on the list with patriotic delight, French delegates to the Unesco conference waved breadsticks and cheered.
This “celebrates the French way of life: the baguette is a daily ritual, a structuring element of the meal, synonymous with our culture of sharing and conviviality,” said Unesco chief Audrey Azoulay, a former French culture minister.
About 320 baguettes – described by Emmanuel Macron as “250 grams [9 ounces] of magic and perfection” – are sold every second in France, and the long loaves with their crispy outside and soft inside have been part of French everyday life for at least 100 years.
But the number of artisan bakeries in the country has dropped from 55,000 in 1970 to 35,000 today due to the proliferation of industrial bakeries and outlets outside the city. “It’s important that these skills and social habits continue into the future,” Azoulay said.
Four of UNESCO’s other proposed entrants — a style of Chilean ceramics, ancient Ahlat stonework from Turkey, the pottery of the Vietnamese Chăm people, and a bell-shaped skirt from Albania known as the xhubleta — are deemed so endangered that they are in dire need of international protection.
The rest, while somewhat less risky, are still regarded by the governments that have put them forward as worthy of recognition as part of the “knowledge and skills needed to pass on traditional craftsmanship and cultural practices from generation to generation”.
The World Heritage Sites Program, also administered by Unesco, is perhaps better known for rating sites such as Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal and the Egyptian Pyramids as of “outstanding universal value to humanity”.
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But the music, handicrafts, food, drink, rituals, dances and customs included in the Intangible Heritage List, according to Unesco, constitute “a living heritage that, passed down from generation to generation, gives communities a feeling of identity and continuity that is considered essential for the respect of cultural diversity and human creativity”.
The 2003 convention has so far been signed by 180 countries – although not the UK, which partly explains why uniquely British rituals such as Morris dancing, tea drinking and cheese rolling do not yet enjoy Unesco recognition.
However, the chai culture of Azerbaijan and Turkey and “traditional tea processing techniques and associated social practices” in China are in the spotlight this year, as is the “knowledge of the light rum masters” of Cuba.
Other contenders include the August 15 festivities of two highland communities in Greece, Jordan’s al-Mansaf banquet, Romania’s altiţă embroidered blouse, and – more prosaically – beekeeping in Slovenia, bell-ringing in Spain and the “ fairground culture” in Belgium.
Already on the list are Korean tightrope walking, French gastronomy and Mongolian camelo tales, along with celebrated dishes such as Neapolitan pizza, North African couscous, Maltese flat sourdough and Croatian ginger biscuits.
The Luxembourg Hopping Procession in Echternach, an eccentric 500-year-old traditional Whitsun procession to the tomb of St. Willibrord in which thousands hop from foot to foot all along the route to the same traditional tune, is right there.
So does the annual grass scythe competition of the Kupres municipality of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Azerbaijan’s traditional pomegranate festivities known as Nar Bayrami, Finnish sauna culture, Jamaican reggae and the Mediterranean diet.
The committee has endorsed virtually all nominations in previous years and is on track to do the same this year. The deliberations, which are live-streamed and, it must be said, are considerably less entertaining than many of the gastronomic specialties, customs and instruments they consider, will continue through Saturday.