On the face of it, not much appears to link the French baguette, Japan’s ritual furyu-odori dances, a cold North Korean noodle dish called naengmyeon, Pyrenean bear festivities and Kun L’bokator, the traditional martial arts of Cambodia.
But all have just been recognised as part of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage by a 24-member Unesco committee, meeting this week in Rabat to consider whether 56 proposed “human treasures” merit adding to the 600-odd already on the list.
UNESCO has just made the French baguette part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of humanity, and the French delegation is wildin out there pic.twitter.com/s1UbutiVBZ
— Jules Darmanin (@JulesDrmnn) November 30, 2022
Other contenders include Georgia’s traditional equestrian games, the Maghreb hot chilli-pepper paste known as harissa, Serbia’s šljivovica plum brandy, oral camel-calling in Saudi Arabia and Oman, and a central Asian lute called the Rubāb.
France greeted the announcement that the “artisanal know-how and culture of baguette bread” had been inscribed on the list with patriotic delight, French delegates to the Unesco conference brandishing the bread sticks aloft and cheering.
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’s 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 crusty exterior and soft middle have been part of French daily life for at least 100 years.
But the number of artisanal bakeries in the country has fallen from 55,000 in 1970 to 35,000 today due to the spread of industrial bakeries and out-of-town outlets. “It is important these skills and social habits continue to exist in the future,” Azoulay said.
Four of Unesco’s other suggested newcomers – 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 threatened as to be in urgent need of international protection.
The remainder, while somewhat less at risk, are still considered by the governments that put them forward as worthy of recognition as part of the “knowledge and skills necessary for traditional craftsmanship and cultural practices to be transmitted from generation to generation”.
The world heritage sites scheme, also administered by Unesco, may be better known for judging places including Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal and the Egyptian pyramids to be of “outstanding universal value to humanity”.
But the music, handicrafts, food, drink, rituals, dances and customs on the intangible heritage list, says Unesco, constitute “a living heritage which, transmitted from generation to generation, gives communities a feeling of identity and continuity considered essential for the respect of cultural diversity and human creativity”.
The 2003 convention has so far been signed by 180 countries – although not by the UK, which partly explains why uniquely British rituals such as morris dancing, tea-drinking and cheese rolling are yet to enjoy Unesco recognition.
The chai culture of Azerbaijan and Turkey and “traditional tea-processing techniques and associated social practices” in China, however, are very much under consideration this year, as is the “knowledge of the light rum masters” of Cuba.
Other contenders include the 15 August festivities of two highland communities in Greece, the al-Mansaf banquet in Jordan, the altiţă embroidered blouse of Romania, and – rather more prosaically – beekeeping in Slovenia, bell-ringing in Spain and “fairground culture” in Belgium.
Already on the list are Korean tightrope walking, French gastronomy and Mongolian camel coaxing, along with celebrated dishes including Neapolitan pizza, north African couscous, Maltese flattened sourdough and Croatian ginger biscuits.
Luxembourg’s hopping procession in Echternach, an eccentric 500-year-old traditional Pentecost procession to the tomb of St Willibrord in which thousands hop from foot to foot along the entire route to the same traditional tune, is in there.
So, too, is the annual grass-scything competition of the Kupres municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the traditional pomegranate festivities of Azerbaijan known as Nar Bayrami, Finland’s sauna culture, Jamaican reggae and the Mediterranean diet.
In previous years the committee has ratified almost all nominations and is on course to do the same this year. Its deliberations, which are livestreamed and, it should be said, considerably less entertaining than many of the gastronomic specialties, customs and instruments they are considering, continue until Saturday.