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On a voyage of discovery in the Lower Engadine
Pearl barley is well known in the mountains of Graubünden. However, top chefs have also had their eye on this grain for some time and are giving it a new twist. We travelled to Tschlin in the Lower Engadine to see how it is cultivated and why it is so popular in the mountains, in particular.
When Gian Denoth walks Uranie and Maya through the village to the fountain, it's not unusual for people to pull out their cameras. It's like a scene from a bygone age. However, for the farmer from Tschlin in the Lower Engadine, watering his horses is an everyday occurrence.
His two coldbloods allow him to farm land that would be considered too steep for most machinery. The two hectares of arable land managed by Gian Denoth are ploughed and sown with the help of his horses. Barley, wheat, rye and buckwheat thrive on the terraces in the Lower Engadine.
I'm fascinated by barley. It is a very traditional ingredient in one of the most popular chalet dishes – barley soup. Yet pearl barley, which is wholegrain barley that has been processed and polished, has also been given a new twist by many lowland chefs. Dishes such as barley salad and barley risotto are increasingly appearing on the menus of well-known restaurants. Switzerland's top female chef, Tanja Grandits, often uses barley as one of the main ingredients in her dishes.
The increased popularity of grain in recent years is no doubt also due to the fact that gluten has become such a hot topic. Barley has a lower gluten content than wheat and is therefore better tolerated by many.
The disadvantage: It's not possible to bake pure barley bread as the gluten content is too low. Yet Gian Denoth recalls how barley flour was once used in many traditional dishes.
"Think about Um Plin Pigna", he says. Excuse me? It stands for "Plein in Pigna", Denoth explains. This traditional dish is a kind of potato and flour gratin with air-dried meat. "Um Plin" is the nickname of the village. His mother also used barley flour for this dish. Just like with pizokel. According to Denoth, barley flour works well in dishes that have potatoes as the main ingredient.
In the past, the ploughed fields in Tschlin were used predominantly as a means of self-provision. Many of the former small fields are no longer farmed today. "It's important to me that we preserve the tradition of arable farming in this region and cultivate the necessary knowledge", says Gian Denoth.
Of course, this is also possible without horses, and many farmers in the village use tractors to plough and sow. However, thanks to his horses, Denoth only requires a small fleet which he can service almost entirely on his own.
It's important to me that we preserve the tradition of arable farming in this region and cultivate the necessary knowledge.
In a barn in the middle of the village is a seed drill that he found online and transported from Canton Aargau to Tschlin. Denoth believes it dates back to the 1940s.
As it is a fairly basic piece of equipment, he can maintain it himself. And it takes no longer to sow than with a tractor. He also believes that "horses' hooves condense the soil less than machines".
"I also came to Tschlin to see why barley is so widespread in Graubünden and why barley soup is almost as well known as those heraldic animals, the ibex. Barley thrives at altitude", observes Denoth. What's more, the awns – the long, pointed bristles that grow from the ear of barley – have a specific job to do at this altitude.
Denoth explains that he attempted to grow wheat last year – with great success. Unfortunately though, "deer stripped the entire field bare". Denoth thinks he knows why: The wheat he chose had very short awns. There is, however, wheat with longer bristles. "It would seem that the awns stop the animals from eating the crop", concludes the farmer. Long awns are a distinctive feature of barley.
At the end of September – sometimes even at the beginning of October – the farmers can begin to bring in the harvest up here. It needs a few sunny, dry days.
We were in luck and got to see it for ourselves. The two horses are not used for this stage. The crop is harvested with a small combine harvester jointly owned by Denoth and several other farmers.
Denoth believes that his son – who will soon take over the farm – may one day be able to do more with the horses. In any case, he's already a committed organic farmer. As a Bio Suisse delegate, his wife Gaby also has a heart for environmentally friendly cultivation. She's currently finishing her training as an environmental consultant. Not least in order to build up a foothold so that their son can introduce new ideas. The income from the traditional farm in Tschlin isn't enough to support two families. They all believe that it's key for mountain products to have their own sales channels. Due to all the manual work and the relatively small volumes, they can't compete with farms using large machines in the lowlands.
The barley that we harvested on this sunny September day was destined for Landquart where it would then be approved and processed by "Gran Alpin". "Gran Alpin" is a confederation of Graubünden mountain farmers who support environmentally friendly mountain agriculture in the mountain valleys of Graubünden. In Landquart, "Gran Alpin" cleans the barley and sends it to the Scartazzini mill in Bergell. Here the grain is de-husked and polished.
"We grind our pearl barley slightly less than standard commercial products", explains "Gran Alpin" CEO, Maria Egenolf. Why? "We find it tastes better like this – and there's less waste, too". Of course, the husks don't end up in the barrel, but are used in animal feed.
Pearl barley is the most important grain for "Gran Alpin" after malting barley, explains Egenolf. It represents around one sixth of production. The "Pro Montagna" label is an important sales channel for "Gran Alpin" pearl barley.
Gian Denoth will sow barley again next year with his two horses Uranie and Maya. They are also put to use in winter. They help Denoth with his work in the forest. As sustainability is becoming increasingly important, especially in mountain regions, the two coldbloods are likely to be in even greater demand in future as they are often needed for forestry work in place of a helicopter. In any case, Gian Denoch can't imagine working in the forest or out in the fields without his horses.
graubündenVIVA stands for the best that Graubünden has to offer when it comes to enjoyment, cuisine and regional produce. Highlight: "Fest der Sinne" (Feast of the Senses) will be touring Graubünden and Switzerland until October 2020.
Other columns by Esther Kern
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