Milan, 24 December 2018
Since we came down to Milan for the winter, my wife and I have been exploring the walks available to us around Lake Como, that lake an hour’s train ride north of Milan whose shape resembles that of a very skinny, headless and armless man striding along at the feet of the Alps. Or, a bit more simply, a three-branched star.
The town of Como sits at the far end of the south-eastern branch, and up to now we have only tried out what is on offer in the hills which plunge down into the waters of this branch of the lake.
I might write a post about these walks later. Right now, I want to report about something completely different which took place on a walk we did yesterday with the children (who are staying with us for Christmas). We were taking them along the Greenway, a walk developed by a couple of canny municipalities with an eye to developing new forms of tourism. It runs between the villages of Colonno and Menaggio. I throw in here a photo to whet readers’ appetite.
Talking of appetite, since we arrived in Menaggio at midday and since we were all hungry, we decided to first have lunch in the local trattoria before embarking on the walk. Having judiciously studied the menu, my son and I both decided to take pizzoccheri alla valtellinese.
It is this pasta – or rather, the flour from which it is made – that I want to write about here.
Pizzoccheri are a form of tagliatelle-looking pasta, flat and long. Their particularity is that they are made, not with wheat flour, but with the flour of buckwheat. Despite its name, buckwheat bears no relation to wheat or to any of the other grains we are familiar with. Unlike them, it is not a grass. It is a plant which flowers
and which then forms dark brown triangular seeds.
For those of my readers who are, like me, interested in etymology, their shape explains their English name. It is very similar, on a smaller scale, to the shape of the nut of the beech tree, and “buck” is a derivation of an early form of the name of the beech tree. So beech-like in shape, wheat-like in use => buckwheat. Voilà!
When these seeds are milled, they form a brownish flour which can also include dark flecks.
This darker colour translates into dark products, like the dark brown pizzoccheri which my son and I ate.
This darker colouration explains buckwheat’s Italian name, grano saraceno, Saracen grain. For Italians, Saracens were people from the coast of North Africa and consequently were considered to be darker skinned. One can see this very clearly in the traditional marionettes used in Sicily, of which one stock figure is a Saracen soldier. The photo below has a series of such marionettes lined up, with the Saracen soldier on the far left.
So far, so good. But what really set me off on this post is that buckwheat originated in Yunnan in China! This gets me onto one of my favourite topics, the transfer of many, many goods as well as ideas along the old Silk Road, mostly in the East to West direction. While I lived in China, I covered the westward travel of the hollyhock, the persimmon, the ginkgo, the magnolia, the willow, the wisteria, and the paulownia. Later, I added playing cards, the citron, garlic , and the carrot. I am happy to now add buckwheat to the list.
Buckwheat has an interesting characteristic, that of having a short growing season and preferring cooler temperatures in which to grow. For this reason, it has been a popular crop to plant in high latitudes or high altitudes. It was its tolerance for high altitudes that ensured its migration from Yunnan to the Tibetan plateau next door, where buckwheat noodles have been a staple for centuries.
From Tibet, the buckwheat moved westwards along the trade routes. By the late Middle Ages, it had arrived on the shores of the Black Sea. From there, it moved to Russia which historically has been the world’s largest producer of buckwheat. It also kept moving westwards. It is recorded in the mountainous Black Forest region of Germany in the 16th Century. Not surprisingly, it also filtered up into the valleys of the Alps, and – this being of immediate relevance to my son and me sitting in a trattoria on Lake Como eating pizzoccheri – it had arrived in Valtellina by at least the middle of the 17th Century.
Valtellina is an alpine valley running westward from the topmost branch of Lake Como; the main river feeding the lake, the River Adda, runs along the valley floor.
It is well-known for a number of foodstuffs. In the buckwheat category, apart from pizzocheri we have manfrigoli, a sort of little crêpe mixed with local cheese and shredded bresaola (see below).
There is also sciatt, a cheese fritter.
All these dishes require generous portions of melted cheese, of which Valtellina produces a good many. Foremost among them are Bitto and Casera, pictured here.
It was Casera, I suspect, that was slathered onto the pizzoccheri we ate on the shores of Lake Como. It is the traditional accompaniment of all the buckwheat foodstuffs of the Valtellina. It makes for calorically heavy meals which, though, were excellent in the old days when the locals were doing a lot of manual labour outside in the cold (and, as my wife will attest from her skiing days, is not bad for those spending a cold winter day on the slopes).
Bresaola, a form of air-dried beef, is another glory of Valtellina. Both my wife and I are great aficionados of Bresaola. I’ve written an earlier post about it, while my wife currently eats a lot of it as part of her very successful diet.
And then of course there are the valley’s wines – nearly all red, all made with the Nebbiolo grape: Inferno, Grumello, Sassella, Valgella, Maroggia.
Luckily for us, neither my son nor I washed our pizzoccheri down with Valtellina wines, otherwise I’m sure neither of us would have been able to walk the walk or even necessarily talk the talk …
But after this foray into the culinary wonders of Valtellina, it is time to get back to buckwheat. The rest of the story can be summarized quickly. European colonists took it with them to North America, where it played an important role in the early agricultural economy of the two countries which emerged from the colonies. It fell out of favour there, as well as in Europe, in the last century when massive amounts of artificially produced nitrogen fertilizers came onto the market: wheat and maize respond strongly to large doses of nitrogen fertilizers, buckwheat does not. And then, to close the loop, a variety of buckwheat developed in Canada was exported to China in the noughties and widely planted there. So for once the flow wasn’t all east to west.
There is much chatter about buckwheat seeing a resurgence, riding the wave of renewed interest in grains which our ancestors ate but which modern industrial agriculture has pushed to the margins. We’ll see. In the meantime, I wish all my readers a merry Christmas, and should they eat – as is quite probable – a calorically heavy meal, I highly recommend a post-prandial walk along a lake or any other natural feature situated in their immediate environs. It will work wonders for the digestion and the hips.
Lake Como map: https://holidaylakecomo.com/access/sala-map.htm
View of Lake Como: https://www.paesionline.it/italia/foto-immagini-brunate/50345_vista_del_lago_di_como_dal_boletto
Pizzoccheri alla valtellinese: https://www.buonissimo.org/lericette/5132_Pizzoccheri_di_Teglio
Buckwheat in flower: https://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/vietnam-in-photos/113500/photos–early-buckwheat-flowers-on-ha-giang-plateau.html
Buckwheat seeds: https://finance.yahoo.com/news/5-grains-apos-ll-help-140000969.html?guccounter=1
Buckwheat flour: https://www.thecheeseshopva.com/product/buckwheat-flour/
Dry pizzoccheri: https://www.gustissimo.it/scuola-di-cucina/impasti-e-pastelle/pizzoccheri.htm
Tibetan field of buckwheat: https://www.flickr.com/photos/33879196@N03/3170162360
View of Valtellina: https://www.viagginews.com/2018/09/25/ponte-tibetano-piu-alto-deuropa-italia/
Vineyards, Valtellina: http://www.winetouristmagazine.com/wt-blog/2016/6/12/discovering-the-wines-of-valtellina-valtellina-italy
Christmas dinner: https://www.pianetadonna.it/notizie/attualita/vigilia-di-natale.html