By Alessandro Pesce, journalist and Daniela Linder-Basso (UCT – Unione Contadini Ticinesi)
The chestnut tree grows widely throughout Canton Ticino between 200 and 1000 metres above sea level. Back in the early middle ages, when it was known as the “bread tree” and was one of the main food sources, people developed a range of techniques to preserve chestnuts; in this way, they could be consumed throughout almost the entire year.
One of the most common preservation techniques was a particular process for drying chestnuts; they were first collected in the woods and then taken to small two-storey stone buildings known as “gra”, Here, they were slowly dried over a fire which provided steady heat for weeks on end. The romantic vision of these tongues of smoke spiralling up above the “gra” has become a distant memory, but the nutritional value and goodness of this autumnal fruit live on.
Nowadays, as in the past, there is a wide range of products which can be obtained from chestnuts: flour, flakes, bread, pastries, cakes, jams and beer whilst foodies adore marrons glacés, roasted chestnuts and boiled chestnuts with cream or served as a side dish with game.
Almost invisible, but incessantly busy with their hectic routine, bees are essential for our very survival due to their key role as pollinators.
And whilst honey may be the most widely known and used product, we shouldn’t forget other gifts from the bees such as royal jelly, pollen and propolis. Due to the close relationship between bees and their habitat, their creations are like fingerprints of the local environment. And this is why the diversity of Ticino’s pre-alpine landscapes, with plains and hills to the south and high peaks soaring to the north, can be discerned in the various types of local honey, each one of which has particular characteristics depending on the area. Ticino’s honey par excellence though is chestnut honey. The aroma is strong and full-bodied, but secondary floral accents can impart different gradations of colour and taste. Acacia honey on the other hand, usually collected in the Sottoceneri area, is almost colourless, with a fine, delicate fragrance and taste.
Lime-tree honey is light brown, and is generally appreciated by those who find false acacia honey too sweet and chestnut honey too strong.
Hidden away in a lush treasure-trove of glorious scenery which is still largely rural and unspoiled, splendid pristine meadows are arrayed across mountain slopes: These are Ticino’s real gems and the tinkle of cowbells is the soundtrack to an alpine lifestyle which follows the slow pace of the changing seasons. Go hiking in the mountains and you’ll want to try some of the cheeses produced by skilled local cheese-makers.
The milk used imparts a very special aroma and taste to the cheese, depending on the type of forage eaten by the cows: This might include alpine lovage, golden crepide, ribwort plantain and various types of alpine clover. These are traditional alpine cheeses and include Brie-style cheeses, but also what are known as dairy cheeses which are semi-hard and full-fat. Just as famous are the flat or “büscion” style cheeses made with cow’s or goat’s milk; they can be eaten fresh and sprinkled with ground pepper and extra virgin olive oil.
Genuine “goat’s” cheese is marked with a special ““Capra Ticino” brand. “Zincarlin” is another outstanding variety; this is a fresh cheese to which salt and ground pepper are added. “Zincarlin della Val da Mücc” has a more intense flavour; it is aged and improved for over two months using white wine according to an old, time-honoured method.
One of the best-established food traditions in Ticino is “mazza”. This is a ritual which once brought families and village communities together; it was “celebrated” by butchers whose fame spread from village to village.
Changes to our lifestyles and regulatory requirements governing the production of cured meats mean that this important event has shifted from farmyards to abattoirs. Fortunately, the flavours and know-how associated with this fine tradition have not been lost and, indeed, over the last few years, many smallholders have successfully started rearing beef cattle breeds to provide high quality, succulent cuts. Amongst the various types of cold cuts to be enjoyed, salami, pork, horse, venison and wild boar salami have become increasingly popular and are now an ever-present feature in any self-respecting grotto. Dried meat (beef and horse) coppa, lardo, flat and rolled pancetta, luganiga, luganighetta (unforgettable when barbecued and in risottos), liver mortadella, raw and cooked ham and stuffed pig’s trotters and are also sublime. Other dishes loved by gourmets are ossobuco, braised meat and shank bone, accompanied by polenta or risotto, grilled pork chops, local lamb and kid and, lastly, tripe soup.
In a period when everything, including taste, is globalised, consumers are more and more aware of the importance of buying locally. They are therefore increasingly seeking out products which are not only healthy but also typical of the area where they are produced. In the Sottoceneri and Piano di Magadino areas, in open fields or in modern greenhouses, tomatoes (the most widely grown vegetable in the Canton) are grown as well as courgettes, lettuce, aubergines, carrots, potatoes, cauliflowers and many other vegetables kissed by the warm Ticino sun.
The main advantage of local vegetables is not just their authentic taste, but also their genuineness (crops are grown in a way which respects the environment and there are no OGMs). In addition, nothing can beat the freshness of a sunlit vegetable plot which follows the seasons as they slowly change. Another niche produce is fruit, especially pears and apples (both of which provide excellent juice), with strawberries and blueberries also grown on a small scale. As well as the inevitable vines, many vegetable plots and gardens are also often adorned with cherry trees, figs and persimmons. Alongside homemade and craft jams, jellies and compotes, it is worth looking out for the vegetable and fruit mostarda (there is also a pureed version) which Sandro Vanini di Rivera has been producing for over 50 years using secret, age-old recipes; they go especially well with meat and cheese. Choosing seasonal fruit and vegetables grown in Ticino enables you to appreciate the taste and genuineness of produce which may only have been picked a few hours earlier. But just as importantly, it means safeguarding and enhancing the value of the landscape, and ensuring a prosperous future for growers.
Vast expanses of wheat as far as the eye can see? No. Cereal crops in Ticino occupy a niche with several excellent products which are a real delight for foodies. Back in the late 1990s, it was decided to once more grow corn for polenta in Ticino. After several years of agricultural studies and much trial and error, in late 1997, the “corn project” was ready. 30 hectares of land now produce high-quality corn from which polenta flour is made; types range from classic to “corvina” flour which imparts a pleasant, intriguing mauve colour to polenta. Corn is also used to produce traditional “Bona Flour” in Valle Onsernone by finally grinding toasted corn. It’s a very versatile product which can be used in many recipes ranging from pasta to ice cream. And now it’s time for a surprising fun fact: Switzerland boast’s Europe’s northernmost rice fields. In 1997 the first rice plants were sown in a 2 hectare plot belonging to the Terreni alla Maggia farm in Ascona. Soon afterwards, 90 hectares were planted and around 400 tonnes of “Loto” rice, which is excellent for risottos, was harvested. The secret of this crop’s success lies in the particular characteristics of the terrain which is situated at a height of just 197 metres above sea level, the lowest point in Switzerland. Amongst the many craft preparations derived from cereals, we can mention panettone, awarded the SMPPC (Ticino Company of Master Bakers, Pastry Chefs and Confectioners) quality mark, colomba, various types of traditional Ticino bread, breakfast cereal flakes, shortbread from Val Bedretto and Spampezia from Valle Leventina.
Olive oil’s history as a foodstuff dates back to the 1600s as is shown by the presence of olive presses discovered in stone structure incorporated into houses. Interest in olive oil has recently taken on a new lease of life and Ticino now produces extra-virgin olive oil which is extremely delicate, light, and fruity. At the same time, the revival of age-old traditions has led to fascinating initiatives such as the Olive Tree Path between Castagnola and Gandria, pruning and cultivation courses and the formation of associations of growers. A few years ago, alongside artisanal vinegar, made on a small scale from wine and apples, Cantina Delea in Losone started producing Ticino balsamic vinegar from the uva americana variety of grape; depending on the ageing method adopted, three types of vinegar made from must are produced in barrels made from top quality wood: “youth” is aged for one year, “adult” for over three years and “the old one” for over six years. Even pepper has become a true Ticino product and in Vallemaggia is flavoured with white wine, spices and liquors. Chilli peppers have also recently been grown for producing chilli powder, oils and jams.
The mountains of Ticino rise up austerely like guardians of this precious land, but they also represent a field of colours, fragrances and flavours, thanks to the huge variety of flora which enriches the local woods and pastures.
Amongst the countless wild or cultivated plants to be found in Ticino, many have medicinal or aromatic properties and have traditionally been valued for centuries by local people. From herbs used to flavour meat and cheese to refreshing summer drinks, not forgetting liquors such as amaro and digestives. In recent years the cultivation of these herbs has been revived by the COFIT cooperative in Val di Blenio which has developed a whole host of products such as (digestive and herbal) sweets, tisanes (Olivone Tisane), infusions (Queen of Ice), mixes for cheeses, flavoured oils and various types of amaro with herbs.
One special characteristic of Canton Ticino is that in little more than 100 km, you can travel from sun-dappled plains all the way up to mighty glaciers. You can wander in the shade of pine trees as well as palm trees. But amongst Ticino’s most breath-taking habitats are the mountain streams which flow into major rivers and lakes. These rivers and lakes, as well as being an integral part of Ticino’s landscape, constitute the ideal habitat for an incredible variety of fish which were once essential both as a source of food and for the local economy.
Followers of the region’s age-old culinary traditions know how to make the most of just about any type of fish.
Local fishermen provide a sublime product which is outstandingly fresh: trout, perch, white fish, charr, pike and zander as well as eel and tench. One traditional dish, ideal on hot summer days, is marinated fish pickled in vinegar and vegetables. Recently, private and public pilot projects, including cross-border projects in partnership with Italy, have set out to enhance the value of lake and river fish with a view to safeguarding this valuable tradition which is still handed down from father to son.
The history of winemaking in Ticino goes back a long time but peaked in the first half of the 20th century when vineyards were replanted according to new quality-based criteria. Within the space of just a few years, the Merlot grape, first planted in 1906, radically changed wine-making in the Canton. Thanks to excellent results during the experimentation phase, Merlot soon became the most widely grown grape in Ticino, replacing other varieties unwisely selected at the end of the 19th century in the wake of untold damage wrought on European vineyards by diseases. These had inadvertently been imported from the Americas and also caused enormous damage in Italy. Grapes usually mature in Ticino towards the end of September and are medium-sized and spherical in shape with black – blue coloured skin. The fermented grapes give an intense ruby red colour to the wine with a balanced body and pronounced character. Depending on the terroir, and the winemaking process used, Merlot can accompany first courses with rich, flavoursome sauces, grilled red meat, roast or braised meat, wild boar and venison and superlative cheeses produced in the many Ticino mountain pastures. It also ages very well in small oak barrels.
Merlot should be served at a temperature of 60° – 18° in large glasses. Ticino has two distinct types of terroir, corresponding geographically to the Sopraceneri and Sottoceneri districts; the types of wine produced are therefore characterised by these two areas. In order of importance, the following grape varieties are grown: Merlot (82%), Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, Gamaret, Bondola and Pinot Nero. White grapes constitute only 8% of the total, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Bianco standing out. Despite its rather limited surface area, Ticino produces a sizeable volume of white wine thanks to the "white" Merlot vinification process. This method ensures particularly fine wines which are also delicate. In fact, in 1997, Ticino Merlot obtained the DOC quality standard in recognition of the quality of wine produced.