Local campaign leads to ministry's Mulgimaa porridge UNESCO application

Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (holding the application document) together with representatives of the Mulgimaa community, on the signing of the UNESCO application, March 21, 2023.
Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (holding the application document) together with representatives of the Mulgimaa community, on the signing of the UNESCO application, March 21, 2023. Source: Ministry of Culture

Hundreds of community members, representatives, schools and local NGOs have backed the campaign to get a traditional potato porridge (Mulgipuder) made in South Estonia listed as an example of intangible cultural heritage, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Culture Minister Piret Hartman (SDE) says the Mulgimaa community has been involved in thoroughly preparing the application for a long period of time, meaning the people must be recognized.

"Our cultural heritage is very rich, certainly also due to the fact that local people and regions value and pass on traditions. Mulgi porridge plays a unifying role in Mulgimaa, and the tradition of making and eating it is part of our living tradition. The custom related to porridge is a worthy addition to the UNESCO representative list, which will help this still-viable custom continue," Hartman continued, via a ministry press release.

Mulgimaa is a historical and cultural region in South Estonia, spanning two present-day counties (Viljandi and Valga counties), and three rural municipalities, one of them actually called Mulgi Rural Municipality (in Viljandi County).

Its unofficial capital is the town of Abja-Paluoja, close to the border with Latvia and close to the location of the residence of a certain former Estonian president.

The region is bound by a common Mulgi dialect of Estonian, and a shared cultural heritage.

As for the porridge, while commercial derivatives can be purchased in stores, the real stuff traditionally consists of a pretty hearty mixture of potatoes, beans and pork rinds, spreading beyond Mulgimaa to the rest of Estonia by the late 19th century.

Questionnaires sent to the people of Mulgimaa in preparation for the UNESCO application revealed that while the standard name, Mulgipuder, applies in general, it has different names in different locales – for instance barrow aunt's porridge (Kärutädi puder), potato-cereal porridge (Kartuli-tangupuder), mixed porridge, farmer's porridge, and other variants, including even Latvian porridge (Läti puder).

As is often the case with traditional food the world over, different families will have their own recipes, passed down from generation to generation, though a set preparation is also even taught as an integral part of teaching the Mulgi dialect and customs in schools and extra-curricular groups, while it is often on the menu at public events in the region, and in municipal and state institutions too.

Ave Grenberg, head of the Mulgi Cultural Institute (Mulgi Kultuuri Instituut), said the idea of applying to the UNESCO' intangible cultural heritage list arose in 2021, when the Abja-Paluoja held the title of the Finno-Ugric capital of culture.

"Mulgipuder is an integral part of the family and community gathering of Mulgimaa people. It is also on offer in refectories, schools and kindergartens in the region, as well as at joint village events and folk festivals," Grenberg went on.

Minister Hartman signed off on the application to UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritage on Tuesday (see cover image), while an official decision from UNESCO is due at the end of next year.

If the application is successful, Mulgi porridge would be the first Estonian intangible cultural heritage item listed as such by UNESCO (as opposed to a world heritage site, which Tallinn's Old Town already is).

Intangible cultural heritage in the UNESCO understanding also includes the performing arts, social practices, rituals and festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and traditional craftwork.

China tops the list with 43 items of intangible cultural heritage at present, while somewhat closer to home, Slovenia has four.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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