Tag: Martigny Croix

Cooked, Cured, Curdled | The Story of Traditional Food in Europe – Part 1

 

Air-DriedBeef-Square
Air-Dried Beef from the Valais canton in Switzerland

In the Swiss Alps at Martigny Croix beyond the old railway station building, there is a gravel path that rises gently past the rocky wide Dranse, a tributary of the great Rhône river.

With a sudden ascent the path turns sharply, climbing hard towards the hamlet of Les Ecoteaux. At 905 metres Les Ecoteaux is the tapered end of a ridge that separates the valleys of the Rhône and the Bagnes.

This is not apparent deep among the stands of mixed conifer and deciduous trees. The switchback climb is arduous. Experienced walkers go slow, like mountain goats finding their way cautiously over firm ground.

Gradually the path levels out onto a pleasant meadow, rising gently again towards the sprawling chalets of Chemin, a village 250 metres higher.

Here the walker faces a choice.

To descend back down, to the town of Martigny, where the L-shaped Rhône slides into Lake Geneva, or to turn towards Ven above Bagnes or to continue upwards towards the Col des Planches, at 1411 metres the first high peak along the ascending ridge.

However at the splendid Col des Planches the path gives respite to the walker, descending slightly more than 100 metres down to Le Planard, a panoramic viewpoint.

Also a crossroads. Five paths test the resolve of the walker at this junction. Three go down, two go up!

Always a good time to stop and contemplate.

And eat.

If it is too early for lunch, a snack from sun-dried raisins, dried apricot halves, slivered almonds, crushed walnuts, whole hazelnuts, some wild berries, an energy bar of honeyed seeds and grains, with apple juice or pear nectar will raise energy levels.

If it is lunch-time, chunks of semi-hard cheese, wafers of air-dried beef, torn soft flatbread, a handful of spelt berries and mineral water will sate the appetite.

A meal not too dissimilar was found to have been eaten by a walker on a different mission 5,300 years ago. Ötzi, a 45-year-old hunter frozen in the ice, had consumed berries, bread, fruit, grains, meat and seeds shortly before his absurd death.

Much has been made about his discovery, but if Ötzi’s stomach contents reveal anything, it is one amazing fact. Traditional foods have been with us for a very long time, and they haven’t changed as much as we might expect.

Although agriculture, herding and dairy farming were changing the habits of the last hunter-gatherers, carbohydrates from barley, einkorn and spelt grains, minerals and vitamins from berries, fruits, grains and seeds, and protein from various wild meat remained essential to well-being.

Ötzi would have cooked over an open fire the meat of animals recently killed. He would have baked flatbreads (more like biscuits) made from coarsely ground cultivated grains. He would have eaten dried food, such as mushrooms, carried in pouches. And he would have gathered fresh berries, roots and seeds.

Barley — a soup ingredient since the last days of the hunter-gatherers


The absence of cheese from Ötzi’s diet is not relevant to that time. Apparently he was lactose intolerant, as many people were in those days and remarkably still are. Cheese-making is a consequence of civilisation. It was the only way to store surplus milk.

Today a walker in the Alps would eat a meal similar to the last one Ötzi consumed. Air-dried meat would replace the freshly-cooked meat, yeast bread would replace the unleavened flatbread, but that is it.

Anyone walking today in the high mountains without high-energy provisions might not meet the same fate that Ötzi suffered, but they would find themselves wondering what to eat from the wild, and that would make them exactly like the ancient Iceman.

Back above the canton of the valleys in Switzerland, the most interesting path to take is the one that rises toward the ridge at Les Blisiers under the 2472 metre high peak of Pierre Avoi, towering over Verbier in the Bagnes valley and Saxon in the Rhône valley.

It is interesting because the path runs alongside an intact Roman-built viaduct. The Roman workers would also have been familiar with a lunch made from berries, grains, roots and seeds. They might even have been fortunate enough to have had some kind of meat to savour, and perhaps a swig or two of wine from local grapes to allow to linger.

Dropping down into Saxon on the valley flour, the walker will visit a known hostelry that serves barley soup. After a hard walk in the last days of summer, this enigmatic winter soup is a reminder of how little the world has actually changed over millennia. It will also be hearty and conducive to well-being, just like the walk.

Then it is a short train ride back to Martigny, where the walker will take a postbus to Martigny Croix or stroll back thoughtfully alongside the Dranse.

The Story of Traditional Food in Europe – Part 2


About the Author

Robert Allen is a founder member of the Fricot Project, an editorial advisor with Editions Fricot and a baker with Fricot Experimental Kitchen and School. A journalist since the late 1970s, he has specialised in the history and reality of traditional food in Europe since 1991 as an advocate of sustaintable food security. He has been a specialist baker since the 1980s, and is co-author, with Fricot researcher Anne Addicott, of Brötchen, the hand-made breads pocket book.

THE FRONT PAGE

BLUE WINDOW | Food Travels in the Alps | Brisolée (autumn harvest buffet with chestnuts, cheese, fruit and wine)

BLUE WINDOW | Food Travels in the Alps | Brisolée (autumn harvest buffet with chestnuts, cheese, fruit and wine)

Three elements of the autumnal brisolée © ST/swiss-image.ch

From the attic window in the alpine chalet, a fine mist can be seen hovering over the valley in the pubescent dawn, the sun still to rise over the mountain peaks. Gradually, as the morning lengthens its shadows, the mist will dissipate, the valley light will shimmer in the promise of a clear day and the high mountains will be framed by a blue window. 

This momentary vista is a mere glimpse of the absolute magic of the Rhône Valley, in high summer a sumptuous land full of growth, at summer’s end a mystical land like this morning. All the way from the expanse of the lake known as Léman where cormorants gaze into the water from the rocks at Château de Chillon to the magnificence of the Aletsch Glacier where chamois look askance at solitary hikers high above the longitudinal plain, this Swiss valley canton offers something unique in the world.

It is the first week of October. The grapes have been harvested, the chestnuts have been collected and apples, apricots and pears have been dried and pulped and fermented and left whole. Tweaks have been made to apple pie recipes. New wines have been selected. Rounds of mountain cheese have been declared ready. Legs of beef have been salt-spice cured, air-dried and delicately sliced, also ready. Batches of rye bread have been baked. Finally the apples pies have been prepared … and baked. Everyone is ready!

chestnuts-in-pan-cutout-lowres

Hand-picking sweet chestnuts from the woods alongside the Rhône under the high peaks is an old tradition of the people. Traditionally the chestnuts were roasted over an open fire, taken inside and served with chunks of mature mountain cheese accompanied by fresh grapes, pieces of apple and pear, grape (must) juice or young wine to wash everything down. Nothing unusual there, just the typical country fare of the canton.

Except this is brisolée, the autumn harvest plate of the people who tend the land where the Rhône is joined by the Dranse at the acute turn eastwards into the valley below the Bernese Alps at Martigny.

Here chestnuts abound between the river, the town of Martigny and the adjacent village of Fully, where the annual chestnut fair is more than a celebration, it is an event characterised by brisolée and fondue and the traditional produce and products of the valley.

The roast chestnut, cheese and wine tradition morphed into a café culture in the Martigny-Fully region in the 1960s when café and restaurant owners realised they could replicate the domestic culture, and offer buffet-style versions of the original plate in a celebration of the change of the seasons.

Brisolée became a traditional dish with an appeal beyond the Martigny-Fully region. Now it is an aspect of the food culture in the Swiss-French speaking areas of the Valais and neighbouring Vaud along the Lac Léman shore. Chestnuts, cheese and wine remain the common denominators of the dish, except among those (including the organisers of the chestnut fair at Fully) who include other Valais products, such as the air-dried beef produced in the canton and various charcuterie. Deep red in colour, these thin slices of beef give off an aroma that is unique to their producers. They compliment brisolée.

In the home the older tradition prevails, with apple tart an integral component. The rye bread of the region is now an essential component of the café and fair culture, and sometimes a brisolée plate will contain roast chestnuts, cheese, rye bread and air-dried beef.

A good place to sample brisolée is the Restaurant de Plan-Cerisier above Martigny Croix on the switch-back road into France.

Brisolée Produce


Rye Bread and Dried Beef
Cheese and Apples
Brisolée buffets are now typically organised in October by restauranteurs and hoteliers but wine-growers continue to arrange brisolée parties in their cellars, and small events are held in the home.

2 bottles new wine
1 kg apples, cored, quartered
1 kg chestnuts, washed, notched
1 litre must (white grape juice)
1 kg pears, cored, quartered
1 rye bread, cut into thin slices
500 g mountain cheese, cut into chunks
500 g white grapes
180 g dried beef slices
Butter

Roast chestnuts for 35 minutes in oven at 200°C. Wrap chestnuts in a cloth. Serve chestnuts with buttered rye bread, cheese, dried beef, white grapes, apples, pears and must.

Brisolée Recipe

Cooking Chestnuts in the Rhône Valley