Maybe you heard the Swiss TV commentator speaking of the tough climb in the 5th stage of the Tour de Suisse bicycle race earlier this year. Up the mountain from the Rhone Valley to the Alpine resort of Leukerbad, the stage took around 100 riders through the old centre of Erschmatt in Switzerland’s Canton of Valais (or Wallis). The announcer couldn’t stop himself describing it as “a wonderfully beautiful mountain village” (“wunderschoenes Bergdorf) offering the world a unique “Rye Experience”.
The poor folk’s bread
At the risk of telling you more about rye than anyone outside the Upper Valais might want to know, here’s the deal on the Rye or Roggen (the German word) Adventure/Experience.
Dating back well before the Romans first invaded this part of Europe and even the Celts, Erschmatt offers the the chance to make delicious rye bread from scratch in a convivial group, baking your own loaf in a traditional wood oven.
Village families had the right to do this two or three times a year, and the “poor folk’s bread” can last that long when stored – and it’s almost as filling as a steak. But in olden times the process required six members of a family to take care of the kneading, oven-stoking, and baking.
Erschmatt’s all-day celebration of biodiversity on 31 July, from 9 to 17:30, included harvesting of this year’s rye, a display of 30 varieties of the grain from the Valais and Italy’s Val d’Aosta, a music group, story telling, and the premiere of a musical, with an emphasis on the conjunction of French and German in song. Held on the village heights in the open air near Erschmatt’s rye terraces, the occasion attracted an enthusiastic and attentive group of villagers, with a stall selling rye products, and a group of “the world’s smallest sheep” from Britanny, 48.6cm maximum in height.
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Roni has played a major role in reviving interest in rye bread, along with several other native Erschmatters, with his efforts since the age of 30 to revive traditional sowing and harvesting in the terraces on the outskirts of the village. The 1230m-high cluster of sun-blackened houses now has Switzerland’s first Rye Information Centre, restaurant and bakery specialized in rye pastry (my favourite is the Rustico stretched loaf). Roni has also made a specialty of planting Valaisan native plants among the rye on the village terraces. He’s been a veritable catcher and saviour of local varieties in the rye.
From Central Asia 5,000 years ago
Known as “Choru” (Corn) to Erschmatters, Roggen’s oldest known name is “grughio”, though no-one seems to know what that word originally meant. Germany’s pumpernickel bread is a rye bread, as is Sweden’s Knäckerbröd. The grain itself can be traced to Central Asia during the Neolithic Period (12,000 years ago).
Hardy and able to survive at high altitudes, rye grows wild in the Carpathians and reached Northern Europe via Scandinavia and Germany in the Bronze Age, some 3300 BC to 1200 BC. Swiss records note its presence in 1209 but even around the time of Christ Roman writers dismissed it as fit only for the poor, and this dismissive attitude has persisted, until modern appreciators rescued it from neglect.
In 2004 Valais rye bread made in the traditional way received AOC (Appelation d’Origine Controlée, not unlike a French wine certification, which led to an upsurge in its consumption. While rye bread accounts for only 1.2 per cent of the average bread consumption in the rest of the country, in the Valais it is 11 per cent.
The Botanic Reserve today has 600 varieties of plants and flowers, most not planted elsewhere. Biologist Ralph Imstepf says the region stretches “from the Mediterranean to Greenland” in the variety of its vegetation in its mosaic of environments. It sells traditional seeds from its collection via the Web for planting in 1-metre square plots. It also offers places for young Swiss who choose civilian over military service at 18.
Erschmatt has a long past, way back before Roman times, as its name indicates. Ersch is the pre-Celtic word for hoe. Matt is an Allemanic word for field, similar to German’s Matte. So it means a field capable of being hoed. It is recorded as Huers in 1328 and Hoers in 1357, from what is identified these days as Ligurian.
The village is believed to have been inhabited more than 2,400 years ago. Iron Age tombs from the first century BC and Roman remains from the first century AD have been found around here. If you go down to the forest in the Rhone’s flood plain below (Finges/Pfyn, from the Latin for outer limit) you can find remains of a Roman villa.
Erschmatt is also proud of its modernity: This is where Switzerland’s first heliodome was built. A sundial-shaped building — through the angle of its roof and windows — it designed to catch the sun’s rays in winter and block them in summer, saving 80 per cent of normal heating costs. Solar panels behind the house and a grass-covered roof cover any gaps in its power needs.
The heliodome is the project of furniture designer Herbert Lötscher, who produces zero-gravity lounge chairs as Chairbert, and appeared on “Switzerland’s Got Talent” demonstrating his wide repertoire of bird whistles. A chance meeting with the inventor, cabinet maker Eric Wasser from Alsace near Strasbourg, at a furniture show in Germany in 2009, led Herbert and his wife Gabriella to decide on constructing the house, the first residential heliodome. It was completed in 2013.
What is also distinctive about Erschmatt is its tradition of nomadism. At 1900m there are summer pastures known as Bachalpe. Part of the community would move there in late June or July with their cattle, sheep and goats. Women would take the three-hour footpath to town with Bachalp milk, yoghurt and cheese. The tradition survives except that Bachalp now has a road. Its yoghurt, available in July and August, is still the best I’ve tasted, and you can buy it at Erschmatt’s general store.
A mid-level hamlet, Brentschen, has been the traditional spring and autumn habitation for Erschmatters. One result is that in the village itself houses often have a separate storage barn and ground-floor accommodation for the goats and sheep that are its most common domestic animals, particularly black-nosed sheep and black-and-white goats.
Some have suggested that judging from remains found in the hills around Sion, the blacknosed Upper Valais sheep were grazing here 5000 years before Christ, because hornless sheep are only noted from the Bronze Age. Its rough wool was woven into a beloved farmer’s cloth for tunics and warm stockings. Each sheep produces around 3kg of wool per year.
I’m not the only Brit who appreciates Erschmatt’s traditions. Andy Mossack, Founder and Managing Editor of TripReporter (LINK) came to Erschmatt in autumn 2018 and reported on his regular BBC radio programme, Where in the world is Andy Mossack?: “I spent a lovely day yesterday in a lovely village called Erschmatt. They make this mountain rye, sourdough bread. It’s absolutely amazing. I was sitting there with a big wooden paddle trying to do this dough, and they’ve got these enormous wood-fired ovens. They take hours and hours to heat up, and they put this lovely bread in there. And we all sat down to a meal together with all the locals, and they had all these lovely home-produced goodies like, you know, cottage cheese with chives, and dried meats and sausages, and this fantastic rye bread. This was something else. Lovely. Being with the locals was smashing. It’s an authentic slice of Alpine life.”
When the moderator said he had his best Chinese meal ever in Geneva, Andy told him: “Get some of this lovely rye bread down you, you’ll be loving that too.”
Literature: classic and contemporary. 5 August 2021: Masterclass in Rilke’s Duino Elegies reports, Chateau Mercier, Sierre 18:30 (LINK)
Erschmatt’s animals, ancient and modern (LINK)
Trips from Erschmatt: from the famous to the “secret” (LINK)
Peter Hulm is deputy editor of Global Insights Magazine and the Global Geneva newsportal.