BLUE WINDOW | Food Travels in the Alps | Roggenbrot / Pains de Seigle (rye bread)

Swiss rye bread with air-dried meat


The three wise men holding their forefingers to their lips know a secret about Appenzeller cheese. They are not the only ones in the mountains and valleys with secrets. The recipe for roggenbrot is also closely guarded.

The woman in Brig Tourism said, ‘Why don’t you ask a bakery for their recipe?’

‘We have,’ we said.

‘Yes,’ she then said. ‘My own recipe is a secret.’

She told us to go up to Eggerberg.

‘Any baker in particular?’ we said with a touch of irony. ‘It is a small place, you will find it.’

Eggerberg village occupied both sides of the road that meandered up the mountain, about 1000 metres above Visp, west of Brig. We travelled seven minutes on the Lötschberger train from Brig. Backhaus Eggerberg was sat back from the road, a few hundred metres from the railway halt. It was closed or shut, we could not be sure because there were no signs of life.

Back in Brig, Maria-Grazia, the manager at Hotel Ambassador on Saflischstrasse, directed us to Fiesch, the seventh stop along the line that carries the Glazier Express into the east of Switzerland. ‘There is a bakery on Hejistrasse. It has a cafe,’ she said. ‘Open all day.’

We surveyed a map of the town and realised we could navigate a narrow path out of the railway station down to the road that ran parallel to both the rail-line and the Rhône river.

In the shop a mature woman greeted us with a blank look when we asked whether there might be someone who could talk about roggenbrot. Crestfallen we wandered out and immediately wondered where the cafe was.

Then we saw the set of steps at the side of the shop.

A young woman appeared. We ordered coffee and cake, and asked again about roggenbrot, whether it would be possible to get the recipe.

She smiled, made the coffee and said, ‘I will ask for you, please sit.’

Minutes later a tall man appeared holding a piece of headed notepaper. Then he began to explain. Imwinkelried bakery and cafe is one of 60 establishments in the canton that makes the traditional rye bread of the region, (roggenbrot in German, pains de seigle in French). Rye bread, once a stable of the canton’s traditional food, is back in the ascendancy. Imwinkelried bake it plain, and with hazelnuts and with the fruit of the canton. They also make the local pastries made with carnival dough, known as chräpfli, of which later.

If you decide to visit this wonderful bakery to sample their traditional breads and pastries, walk back along the platform in the direction the train has come from. In front of you, past a house, a narrow path winds down onto Hejistrasse. The bakery is immediately across the road, the cafe above.

This is the Imwinkelried bakery version.


Roggenbrot / Pains de Seigle (sourdough rye bread)

The recommended sourdough for roggenbrot is made with one part rye flour to two parts water and fresh yeast between 1% and 1.5% of the amount of water. Some bakers use 10%. A 1:1 rye-water ratio is also used, without the addition of yeast. Some bakers add 10% from an existing sourdough as a starter. These are the secrets of the rye bread maker. Whatever the choice the new sourdough is left to ferment for at least 12 hours at room temperature and 10 hours in the refrigerator.

  • 1.35 kg rye flour
  • 1 litre water
  • 100 g rye sourdough
  • 50 g yeast
  • 35 g rock salt

Dissolve yeast in 100 ml water, add to the rye flour with remaining water, salt and sourdough. Mix for five minutes, knead for ten minutes. Desired dough temperature is 25°C. Leave to ferment for an hour, degas, leave for a further hour and longer if the dough has not risen sufficiently. Preheat oven to 230°C. Divide into four 600 g pieces and shape into rounds. Place on greaseproof paper on a baking tray, flatten each one slightly, dust with rye flour and leave to rise for 30 minutes. The surface of the dough should be cracked slightly. Spray oven with water. Bake for an hour, until the surface is cracked and crispy.

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder championed Alpine rye bread two thousand years ago. A thousand years later rye bread was the main source of daily food in the valley villages of transalpine Switzerland. A native of central Asia, rye moved westwards into Europe as a weed growing among cultivated barley and wheat where it was noted for its hardiness, making it a staple grain crop in northern Europe during Pliny’s era. It could grow in poor soil and in cold climates, but it contained a fungus called ergot that caused convulsions and hallucinations, and was a common disease in the Middle Ages. Today rye is ergot free and grown across Europe and Scandinavia. These days the flour is used to make bread and to make sourdough (one part flour, one part mineral water). The flakes are rolled and used in breakfast cereals. Rye is also made into malt for brewing.