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. There is only one baker who still prepares the bread according to the traditional recipe. Urs Amadeo, who lives in Simplondorf, a village with no more than 360 inhabitants 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. The aim of the Slow Food Presidium is to support and promote the artisanal production of traditional Valais rye bread and to assist the entire production chain, enabling the use of old mill stones at the mill in Blatten, near Naters, and in the future it may also be possible to revive other old stone grind- ing mills in the Valais.
The Canton of Valais
Presidium supported by
The widespread cultivation of rye in high-altitude Swiss valleys has had a significant influence on the diet of people living in the mountains, who have always eaten food based on the cereal. In Val Müstair in the Swiss Canton of Graubünden, situated over the Ofen Pass near the Swiss National Park, the mild climate has also allowed wheat to be grown. As in other alpine valleys, rye bread was the traditional daily bread of the area for centuries, but here it comes in a lighter version with a soft floury crust and dark brown loaf, known as Paun sejel (sejel means rye in the Romansch language). Also known in Italy in its South Tyrolean version, flavored with fennel seeds (Ur-Paarl, a Slow Food Presidium), Paun sejel consists of two flat loaves joined together along one side and is produced using 70% clear rye flour and 30% semi-white wheat flour. In the past Paun sejel used sourdough, like all types of rye bread, but unfortunately this is no longer the case. Paun bread uses a dough of mixed flour called biga, and is left to ferment for 6-8 hours, producing a soft, sticky, almost liquid mass, as happens when using rye flour. Without leaving the dough to ferment any longer, two handfuls are removed and placed side by side on a well-floured board to be shaped. The two shapes are then baked in the oven for half an hour at around 250° C, allowing the two loaves to merge together.
Today Paun sejel is either eaten fresh, or 2 to 3 days after baking when it has slightly hardened and the sour rye flavors are more marked. In the past it would be kept for weeks or even months by small farmers.
With the arrival of the first industrial bakeries and the disappearance of rye growing in Val Müstair in the second half of the 20th century, the original production of Paun sejel gradually began to fade away. But a few small farmers continued to bring flour to their village bakery once or twice a month to get their personal supply of bread made.
At present there is only one baker in the whole valley who produces Val Müstair Paun sejel according to the traditional methods, using native Graubünden rye, exclusively mixed with Graubünden wheat flour in the traditional proportions.
The main objective of the Presidium is to support production of Paun sejel from Val Müstair and assure its future, but the overall project has a range of objectives. It particularly aims to promote the cultivation of native rye in the valley, along with local varieties of wheat, not only to eliminate long and expensive transport but also to enable the local mill to be used regularly. This would guarantee income for the millers, cereal growers and bakers that continue to produce Paun sejel according to the traditional recipe.
Production area Müstair Valley, the Canton of Graubünde
Presidium supported by Coop Switzerland