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The Mediterranean heart of Switzerland
Great importance is attached to tradition and authenticity in the south of Switzerland. In days gone by, the remote nature of the southern valleys meant that access to industrial foodstuffs was limited and so products were developed out of necessity. These products are now valued more than ever thanks to the growing demand for authenticity and quality. In grotti or rustic taverns, simple dishes are served just like grandma used to make. A platter of sausage and cheese from local producers and a jug of deep-red Merlot are just the start of the rich culinary offering that awaits.
Exploring the local cuisine in Ticino
The remote and peaceful Onsernone Valley is situated above the gorge through which the emerald green waters of the Isorno river flow. The valley has always attracted artists and writers. Max Frisch once chose this rural idyll as his workplace. To reach the villages on the high south-facing slopes, you first have to navigate countless turns through the impressive landscape. On arriving at the top, you are rewarded with a multitude of hiking trails and a valuable insight into traditional valley life, which to this day has managed to retain its uniqueness. This includes the traditional stone houses with wooden balconies, alpine huts and mills.
The cultivation of corn and production of polenta has a long tradition in Ticino and in the Onsernone Valley in particular. For centuries, polenta was one of the main staples in these secluded valleys. The golden mash is still served today in many places, accompanied by "brasato" (braised beef) or "ragù di coniglio" (rabbit ragout). In some places, polenta is still cooked in the traditional way in large copper pans over an open fire.
Thanks to Ilario Garbani, a tasty tradition has been revived in the village of Vergeletto. With much blood, sweat and tears, the former teacher has restored the old mills, helping farina bóna – a traditional flour made from toasted corn – to experience something of a renaissance. As a result, the tradition of this once poverty-stricken valley will not be forgotten. The Slow Food Presidio project "Farina Bóna" was founded in 2008 by several representatives from the Onsernone Museum and Coop Switzerland. With its roasted aromas, this gluten-free flour lends food such as polenta, spaetzle, soups, pasta, biscuits and even beer a delicious popcorn flavour. Farina bóna ice cream comes highly recommended and is available from the "La Dolcevita" gelateria in Locarno.
Grotti and "osterie" were originally used by our ancestors as larders. Most are in hidden locations and built with thick stone walls. As such, the inside temperature remains cool throughout the year. Nowadays, these often secluded cellars serve as public taverns offering seasonal dishes. In sunny weather, the pretty terraces with their millstone tables and long benches are a wonderful place to relax in the shade of nearby trees. The dishes and local produce on offer are simple yet delicious, and include sausages, polenta, risotto and braised meat.
In the kitchens of Ticino, unique products have always been prepared with great attention to detail and with a passion for the region and its traditions. Each of the remote valleys has its own unique specialities.
The "Zincarlin da la Vall da Mücc" is made from raw milk and produced exclusively in the Valle di Muggio. It matures in the cool cellars or the Monte Generoso massif where the cheese is rubbed with salt and white wine on a daily basis. This is what gives the cheese its tangy flavour and unmistakable aroma. In order to preserve the traditional processing techniques and quality, the producer of this historic product, Marialuce Valtulini, was supported by Slow Food CH (as a first project). A new version known as the "Gincarlin" also emerged a couple of years ago. Instead of wine, this particular cheese is treated with Ticino's original gin, the "Bisbino".
When strolling through the markets, there's a cylindrical cream cheese that also catches the eye. The cork-shaped "Büscion" is available in the classic "naturale" variety as well as with pepper or alpine herbs.
Ticino is a haven for sausage lovers. Salami, salametti, cured ham, mortadella or lardo (a type of salumi) are an integral part of any "piatto di antipasti". One of the region's oldest traditions is "mazza", the process of slaughtering and using different parts of the cow, pig or goat. Every village butcher's makes its "luganiga" or "luganighetta" sausage according to its own recipe. In many areas, these pork sausages are grilled or used in risotto. Also popular is the "cicitt", a long, thin sausage made exclusively from goat's meat. This special seasonal delicacy is enjoyed in the late autumn, once the cattle have returned from higher pastures.
Autumn is the best time of year for foodies to explore Ticino as this colourful season also brings with it some unique culinary delicacies.
Wine festivals are synonymous with Ticino. Thanks to the mild climate in this sunny part of Switzerland, the grapes that grow here on the hillsides are second to none. Merlot is the dominant variety and the pride of Ticino. Around 40% of Ticino's vineyards can be found in the southern-most part around Mendrisiotto, which resembles Tuscany with its hills and villages. Many wine cellars offer tastings so that you can sample the variety of wines on offer and purchase them directly. This means that you can also get information first hand.
The chestnut groves in the gently rolling hills of Malcantone near Lugano are definitely worth a visit in autumn. From the end of September through to October, you can collect sacksful of sweet chestnuts along the forest trails. These brown chestnuts are hidden inside prickly burrs and cover the paths and meadows as they fall to the ground with the foliage. The fruit only falls to the ground once ripe. In days gone by, chestnuts were considered the bread of the poor in rural areas of Ticino. Following a pest infestation several years ago, they are now experiencing something of a revival. Chestnut-based delicacies including cakes, biscuits and jam are widely available. The smell of roasted chestnuts is in the air as you walk through these villages and they certainly keep your hands warm now that the temperatures have dropped.
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