Naples pizza-making wins UNESCO heritage status

Hwang Sunghee, with Ella Ide in Naples
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Naples' art of pizza twirling has joined UNESCO's list of 'intangible heritage'

The art of Naples' dough-twirling pizza makers joined UNESCO's list of "intangible heritage" Thursday, securing the coveted status alongside a host of cultural treasures including a Saudi art form traditionally practised only by women.

The art of the 'pizzaiuolo' -- handed down for generations in the southern Italian city -- was given the nod by the UN cultural body's World Heritage Committee, who met on the South Korean island of Jeju.

Two million people had signed a petition to support Naples' application, according to Sergio Miccu, head of the Association of Neapolitan Pizzaiuoli -- no doubt buoyed by his offer of complimentary pizza if the age-old culinary tradition joined the prestigious list.

"We'll be giving out free pizza in the streets," Miccu earlier told AFP.

Proud pizza-makers in Naples celebrated even before the distinction was announced on Thursday, pounding the dough and handing pizzas out to passersby who chewed it up in celebration.

"How perfect to celebrate with pizza for breakfast. The word pizza must be the most famous in the world, in every language, and now everyone knows we invented it!" said Marco Toeldo, 47, who was on his third slice.

- Pizza ritual -

The Neapolitan custom goes far beyond the pizzaiuolo's spectacular handling of the dough -- hurling it into the air in order to "oxygenate" it -- to include songs and stories that have turned pizza-making into a time-honoured social ritual.

"Victory!" Maurizio Martina, Italy's minister for agriculture, food and forestry, wrote on Twitter. "Another step towards the protection of Italy's food and wine heritage."

In a statement, Martina said the recognition came after a years-long campaign. "The art of the Neapolitan pizza-maker contains Italian know-how ... especially traditional knowledge that has been transmitted from generation to generation," he said.

- Humble origins -

The pizza's humble ancestor, a plain affair usually tarted up with a bit of lard, initially emerged as a cheap, easy and fast way to feed the city's army of poor, said historian Antonio Mattozzi.

But despite being an immediate hit with the locals, pizza failed to take off outside the city at first, Mattozzi told AFP.

It took Queen Margherita's love of the classic tomato, mozzarella and basil version to fire up the imagination and taste buds of diners far and wide -- or so the story goes.

Hoping to win the hearts of the commoners, the Italian queen asked in 1889 to try their favourite dish. And while she was unconvinced by anchovy and Parmesan-topped versions, the basil delight won her over.

- Saving tradition -

Thirty-four candidates were in the running to join UNESCO's list of intangible heritage, created in 2003 mainly to raise awareness, although the agency also sometimes offers financial or technical support to countries struggling to protect their traditions.

The list already included more than 350 traditions, art forms and practices from Spain's flamenco dancing to Indonesian batik fabrics, to more obscure entries such as a Turkish oil wrestling festival and the Mongolian coaxing ritual for camels.

Saudi Arabia was among those celebrating on Jeju, claiming the tag for Al-Qatt Al-Asin -- elaborate interior wall paintings traditionally done by women. The art, which promotes solidarity among women, is handed down through observation.

Bangladesh also claimed victory with its tradition of Shital Pati, an intricate weaving craft using strips of green cane to produce mats and bedspreads.

Another winner was the traditional horseback game of Kok Boru in Kyrgyzstan, where players score points by putting a goat's carcass in an opponent's goal -- though the dead animal is replaced with a mould in the modern-day version.

An array of traditions struggling to survive will also be given special support after being placed on an "urgent safeguarding list".

These include a whistled language that developed in Turkey as a way to communicate across steep mountains and rugged topography but is now threatened by mobile phones.

Morocco will also get help to protect Taskiwin -- a martial dance that developed in the western High Atlas mountain range and involves shaking one's shoulders to the rhythm of tambourines and flutes.

UNESCO said globalisation and young people's rejection of traditional heritage had driven the practice "closer to oblivion".

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