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Rye is the quintessential cereal in the mountain valleys of the European Alps. Much more robust than other cereals, it has always easily adapted to the harsh climate and high altitude, making it a staple food for the local people for many centuries.    

In the Swiss Canton of Valais, wheat was rarely seen and was very expensive, seen as a luxury product. Instead people ate a sourdough rye bread, often produced by "diluting" the dough with inferior quality ingredients such as chaff.    

Considered a “poor people's bread”, Valais rye bread used to be found in everyone's houses, whereas now it is almost impossible to find anywhere in the canton. The last bakery still preparing the bread according to the traditional recipe – using only rye flour - is in Simplondorf, a village with no more than 360 inhabitants.

The baker, Urs Amadeo, is the fifth generation to ply his trade and learned everything from his father. He bakes bread six days a week, jealously guarding, not so much the simple ancient recipe, as his sourdough starter, known as the "chef".    

The traditional recipe for Valais rye bread only uses flour of pure fine rye bran, water (sourced from the valley) and salt. These ingredients are mixed with the “chef”, which constitutes 10% of the final volume, until a homogenous non-sticky mass is obtained. This is then left for at least 12 hours (up to 15 or 18) when it doubles in volume.

An essential factor in the process, the family's “chef” has been handed down through at least four generations. Its perfect microbiological equilibrium gives acidity to the dough and a very long life to the bread (as long as a few months). This was crucially important in these alpine regions where the communal oven would only be fired 2 or 3 times a year. Before dividing the dough into various sizes (500, 700, 1000 or 1500 grams), a part is removed to be used as the starter dough for the next bread-making session.    

After rising, the dough is put in the oven at a temperature of 230-250˚C and baked for about one and a half hours. The resulting bread is very compact, golden brown in color, with a slightly flattened conical shape. It has a thick crisp crust, while the inner part of the loaf is grey-brown, moist and has a distinctly sour taste. Valais rye bread, which is kept in a cloth napkin, is perfect with dried meat or cheese, and also with sweet foods.    

Traditional Valais rye bread enjoys PDO status, but the PDO rules permit the addition of wheat flour (up to 10%) and beer yeast, allowing faster and easier preparation. This results in a bread with a less complex flavor which is different to the traditional bread, particularly in its texture and storability.

The aim of the Slow Food Presidium is to support and promote the artisanal production of traditional Valais rye bread produced with 100% rye bran, which is finely ground and mixed exclusively with a sourdough starter. The Presidium is assisting the entire production chain, enabling the use of old mill stones at the mill in Blatten, near Naters, where the rye for Presidium bread is finely ground, and in the future it may also be possible to revive other old stone grinding mills in the Valais.

What is a Slow Food Presidia? 

The Slow Food Presidia are projects sustaining quality production at risk of extinction, protecting unique regions and ecosystems, recovering traditional processing methods, safeguarding native breeds and local plant varieties.

Check out our website: http://www.slowfoodfoundation.com/presidia

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Photos — Archivio Slow Food

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