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Mountin’ a comeback

Anthropologist Marzia Béthaz reveals how the steep slopes of Alpine fields are starting to sway with golden grains again.

Photo © Marzia Béthaz

Photo © Marzia Béthaz

Nestling between Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa, Valle d’Aosta lies at the heart of the Italian Alps. Here more and more growers - professionals and non-professionals alike - have started to bring cereal back to their fields, revitalising a centuries-old practice that was all but abandoned by the last decades of the twentieth century.

It’s a subject in which I have become immersed. The thesis I wrote for my master's degree in anthropology was on the political and ideological implications of growing cereal in this mountain territory. I am also participating with great enthusiasm in my family's attempt at growing wheat at 1600m. It’s a very small field but a source of huge satisfaction.

A long tradition

Picture an Alpine landscape: snowy summits and rocky cliffs, lively streams running down narrow valleys and green pastures where small but muscular cows graze placidly. Resist the urge to climb high, towards a well-known summit or a peaceful lake, and instead take a trail into the valley. As you head down and down, grassy pastures give way to forests of larches and fir trees, which in turn leave space to a host of broadleaves – chestnuts, oaks, birches. It’s here, between a patch of forest and a terraced vineyard, that you may discover small fields of cereal.

A hundred years ago, cereal fields covered the whole region of Valle d’Aosta. Around 8000 hectares of this small and mostly mountainous territory were dedicated to grain production. Rye, wheat and maize were important in people’s diets, while oats and barley were essential as feed for working animals. Traditionally, cereal was grown in rotation with potatoes, another staple food in this area. Rye was the most widespread as it is the most resistant to mountain climates, needs no artificial watering and almost no other human intervention between sowing and harvesting. Rye was sown up to 1800-2000m above sea level, while fields at lower altitudes were kept for less hardy wheat and maize.

Communal harvesting and baking

The economic system of this region was based on subsistence agriculture and herding, with a delicate equilibrium of mutual aid and resource sharing. Important infrastructure, such as ovens and water-powered flour mills, were often owned by a community, or were leased by their owners to people living close-by. Harvesting and bread making were social events that brought a community together. As the amount of work was considerable, neighbours and relatives helped cultivate each other’s fields, harvesting, threshing, milling and baking.

The bread found on everyday tables was always the same, made of low-fermented wholemeal rye and wheat in varying proportions. These round one-kilo loaves were dense and dark, hence the name pan ner (black bread) in the local dialect. Several varieties of sweet breads were baked for celebrations, while bread made with whiter, sifted wheat flour was a privilege for people on higher incomes.

Just like harvesting, bread making happened once a year and lasted for several days. When the time came in late autumn or early winter, the oven was fired up and dehydrated sourdough starter from the previous year was reactivated. The dough was made, shaped and baked on the same day. For larger families, several days of baking were needed to make enough bread to feed everyone. Loaves of pan ner were then dried on special racks, which ensured that the bread kept well all year round.

Starters and ovens were collective resources. The starter was passed from one family to the next, until every household in the community had had a chance to bake their year’s supply of bread. The oven was managed carefully, with each family baking soon after another so as not to waste valuable heat. As the first family to bake had to procure more wood to bring the oven up to baking temperature, the schedule rotated so that this higher cost was borne by a different family each year.

Baking gatherings are an important part of Valdôtain social history and identity, though the practice gradually transformed from a necessity of the past into an occasion of conviviality and celebration today. Communal ovens are still lit up periodically for pan ner - and some sweet variants – to be baked and enjoyed together. Breads now produced on these baking days are often offered as gifts around Christmas time, which makes the inherently social character of the baking even stronger.

Agricultural change

Similar continuity cannot be said of cereal growing in this region. Due to the morphology of the territory (high altitudes, steep, small and hardly accessible fields), it is more difficult and time consuming to grow grain, compared to areas where the conditions are more favourable and mechanisation can be greater. Cereal growing is also less profitable here, as yields are lower and more time is needed to accomplish similar tasks.

As people turned to easier and more profitable ways to make a living during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the socio-economic transformations that affected much of the rest of rural Europe helped to drive a gradual loss of cereal growing in Valle d’Aosta. The cultivated area dropped from around 8000 hectares in 1900 to about 5.5 hectares in 2009, with only a few families continuing to sow and harvest their grains.

A re-awakening

Recently, however, interest in growing - and baking with - cereal in Valle d’Aosta has started to rise again. Since 2003 the Institut Agricole Régional or IAR (Regional Institute for Agriculture) has led a project that recovered several local varieties of grain. The work was carried out by staff from the IAR in collaboration with technicians from the agriculture department of the Regione Autonoma Valle d’Aosta.

The project’s developers built upon research carried out during the ‘80s by Agroscope, the Swiss national institute for agronomy, which had catalogued some Valdôtain varieties and had saved them in the Changins seed bank. Other varieties were provided by farmers who were still saving and sowing seeds inherited from their ancestors. Researchers re-discovered yet more varieties in old bags of seeds found in people’s homes, and even grains scraped out from cracks and crevices in the wooden floors of abandoned granaries.

Not all of the found seeds were still viable, and others were lost - especially due to damage from wildlife - during the process of growing to bulk up quantities. What remains are 19 cultivars each of rye and wheat, two of maize and one of barley ready to be grown again. The IAR is in the process of getting them on the national seed register, which is necessary before for seed can be sold (or even given away) to be grown for food. In the meantime, the institute is lending unregistered varieties to farmers under experimental research collaboration contracts, a method ensuring that these varieties are kept alive and that seeds are replicated and passed on to growers legally. Cultivars that are on the register already are at the core of interesting projects promoting local cereal and local agriculture.

Local economy

One particularly interesting project promoting local grains is La Vallée du Seigle, a collaboration between the local municipality of Rhêmes-Saint-Georges and the IAR. The project’s aim is to reintroduce to the fields of Rhêmes-Saint-Georges a particular variety of rye that was once cultivated there. Doing so, the project’s promoters hope to give rise to a series of positive effects: potentially rye could become a means of diversifying revenues on the municipality’s territory, allowing some people to remain or even move back to an area that has been deeply affected by depopulation. Tending the land could in turn have a positive impact on the economy by helping to attract visitors, who on one hand could benefit from a well-kept, interesting environment and on the other from a truly local gastronomic offer. A chef and a baker are already including this rye in their creations, and the promoters of the project hope to start other interesting collaborations with the food sector in the future.

In this case as in many others, protecting biodiversity and taking care of the land in an environmentally sustainable manner go hand-in-hand with preventing further depopulation, ensuring social development and protecting a local culture. Each of these objectives contributes to the others. By investing in the image of the place, the project’s promoters also aim to make visitors aware of the values they are working for. They get to see up close the need for and benefits of: moving towards more sustainable agriculture - at both a social and environmental level - protecting livelihoods in marginalised areas, and finding a better and healthier way to feed ourselves.

While La Vallée du Seigle is a project co-promoted by a public body and a research institute, some private businesses are also involved in the cereal scene. La Bonne Vallée is a family enterprise combining a farm growing mainly maize, but also rye and berries, with a bakery producing biscuits and other sweet baked goods. Beyond baking delicious treats and sowing a local variety of red maize (which makes wonderful polenta) the Chappoz family also organise visits to their farm for children. Struck at how people often ignore where food comes from, the family hopes to contribute to increasing awareness on how food production works and why it is important to take care of farmers and agriculture, reducing the separation between field and fork that many people experience.

Another case is La Biopanetteria, one of the biggest producers of cereal in Valle d’Aosta. Owners Gianfranco and Laura take care at every stage of bread production, from growing to milling to baking and selling, with the aim of providing better bread for their customers. They bake with flour freshly-milled made from the grains they grow, and select techniques that enhance the nutritional content of their bread. Their aim is getting closer to a better way of baking and eating: more respectful for the environment, for our health, and for future generations towards whom they feel accountable. Gianfranco and Laura are surprised at how people’s minds and attitudes have changed over the last twenty-five years towards less processed, simpler bread. They are delighted that more and more customers are getting closer to the ideals they have worked for since 1994.

All grist to the mill

While tending a vegetable garden, a potato field, even a little vineyard or apple orchard for one’s own consumption has always been into the range of possibilities in Valle d’Aosta, cereal had lost this place. The situation is gradually changing, though, as the possibility of growing cereal is being perceived as more and more realistic. The time is also ripe to start building networks around grains. For instance, some growers have formed associations bringing together both professional and non-professional farmers to share resources and knowledge on all things cereal. Lo Gran is one such association. Originally formed to secure European funding to buy a collective stone mill, the association has continued as its members feel it is a good source of mutual support among growers. Today Lo Gran brings together some thirty people in the western area of Valle d’Aosta to promote the culture of cereal growing and traditional baking.

Not all farmers growing cereal in this region sow local varieties. Many prefer to get seed that has been bred elsewhere to be resistant to mountain climates in general, but they are still helping to bring cereal growing back to a place where it had been all-but abandoned.  From those 5.5 hectares in 2009, the overall area cultivated with cereal had risen to 22 ha by 2014, and by 2018 it was 31 ha across about 90 small-scale farms. It is significant to note that these figures only include land that is cultivated by professional growers and has been registered. One technician from the agriculture department of the Regione Autonoma Valle d’Aosta estimates that it would be appropriate to add about another 6 ha to account for around 150-160 growers tending to about 200-300m² of cereal each for their own consumption.

One needs to be sincere: not all attempts at growing cereal in Valle d’Aosta and have been successful. Combining the needs of agriculture with the needs of a business is not always easy. Even with commercial varieties that are more productive than local ones, the territory remains the same and the amount of work needed to sow, grow and harvest them is still considerable.

Change your bread, change your future

The recovery of the practice of cereal growing in Valle d’Aosta is an interesting process, which puts into question how we perceive our economy, the role of farmers in our society, and the potential of food as a tool for social transformation. For a society in which the economy and the search for profit are often conflated, examples such as the cereal growing projects in Valle d’Aosta push us to look at the economy differently, considering aspects and values that transcend a mere quest for profit. Attention to the environment and to human health, consciousness about the socio-economic impact of agriculture, respect for a cultural repertoire and sense of accountability towards future generations – all these factors play an important role in people’s choice of investing in cereal. Different peoples will give more or less weight to any one of these aspects, but most Valdôtain cereal growers have at least one thing in common: a deep form of dissatisfaction.

People working with cereal in Valle d’Aosta are not satisfied with the quality of commercial loaves and flour. They have a clear knowledge of the reasons that determine this poor quality, including the choice of ingredients and processing techniques. They point out that today’s flours are impoverished because they come from grains that have been selected prioritising uniformity, yield and resistance to chemicals over diversity, nutritional values and natural resilience. They condemn that, at every stage of the production chain from field to loaf, processing techniques are often chosen based on reducing time and costs of production, rather than on increasing nutritional value or environmental and social sustainability. They challenge the use of agrochemicals and food additives that might be harmful both to health and to the environment, but the implications go deeper. The increasing standardisation of crops and processing techniques is also perceived as a threat to cultural diversity. Going against such standardisation, people engaging with cereal in Valle d’Aosta are asserting their need to express and honour their cultural roots, and to build a deeper connection with the land.

Counter culture

Cereal, then, which has such a significant role in Valdôtain culture, becomes a form of counter-culture. Growing their own cereal and baking their own bread, people in Valle d’Aosta are fighting for their right to decide what is bread worth being eaten and how such bread is made, without giving in to the standardisation brought about by the neoliberal system. It is a struggle to assert one’s right to autonomy and self-determination, one’s right to eat bread that comes from outside the mainstream industrial food system. By growing their own cereal and baking their own bread, people in Valle d’Aosta are carving out a space for themselves in a system that “grinds you down”, as one of them once told me. It is not about trying to overthrow that system, but to procure a safe space for oneself, to survive in unfriendly conditions.

In this way, a project that started off as a personal commitment to improve the quality of one’s own food becomes a precious example that shows doing things differently is possible. This diversity can also turn into a source of inspiration to start imagining how a better future may look like. Cereal, with all its baggage of joy and excitement, of hard work and commitment, becomes a way to materialise this better future in the present. It does so not by igniting a revolution, but by transforming reality one step at a time, from the bottom upwards, by one’s everyday engagement with food.

People engaging with cereal in Valle d’Aosta are not alone in fighting for real food. Farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, researchers and others all over the world are getting together to work for similar ideals, struggling to plant the seeds of what they hope will be a renewed and more just society. Time will tell if more people in their communities are ready to get to work and help bring this harvest home for everyone.

A shorter version of this article was originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 45, January 2021

Published Monday 29 March 2021

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