Lo Pan Ner, the tradition of Rye bread making in Val d’Aoste
Cook in Venice is part of AIFB, the Association of Italian Food Bloggers, and, as a member, very often we get the opportunity to take part in some amazing Food and Wine events, all over the boot of Italy.
This time the association asked me if I would be interested in spending a couple of days in Val d’Aoste and attend to a very peculiar and interesting celebration: Lo Pan Ner 2017.
On Saturday 14th October 2017 the village ovens of about 50 municipalities in the Aosta Valley would have lighten up, just for a day, to cook the traditional black rye bread to celebrate the second edition of “Lo Pan Ner”.
The celebration would have then carried on the following day, 15th October 2017, in the city of Aosta, where there would have been a bread contest, with all 50 municipalities participating with the bread they baked the day before.
How long did you think it took me to say yes? Mmmm, yeah, just about 10 seconds, the time it took me to open my diary and check if I was free!
I was assigned not one, not two, but three locations for my visit: I would be a guest in the three small mountain villages of Antey-Saint-André, La Magdeleine and Torgnon, all situated in the Valtournenche, near the Cervino Mountain.
So, at the dawn of 14th October, I left a dreary dark foggy Venetian countryside and made my way by car to Val d‘Aosta; on the way I picked up a fellow Food Boggler, Elisabetta Riva, who has a blog specialized on bread Viva Il Pane and who was assigned to another village not far from my own.
The moment we left Milan, the fog lifted like by miracle and a blazing and crispy sunny day was waiting for us in the mountains of Aosta.
The village of La Magdeleine
After dropping Elisabetta at her location, I made my way to Antey-Saint-André where I left my car and was met by Noemi Cavagnetto, the vice-mayor of the village of La Magdeleine, located at an altitude of 1644 metres, a charming place on the left bank of the Marmore river, in the middle of the Cervino Valley.
La Magdeleine is an interesting example of urban mountain organisation. It is a group of five small hamlets (“hameaux”) built following a simple, harmonious architecture in wood that is both people and nature friendly.
Noemi is the youngest vice-mayor I have ever met in my life! A young girl full of life, energy and passion! The perfect welcome and start for this new adventure.
As she skillfully made her way up the hairpin bends, which led up the mountain to La Magdeleine, she explained exactly what the event of Lo Pan Ner was all about, the program that the three villages had designed just for me and she introduced me to the first inhabitants of the valley: a group of lovely cows which were crossing the road!
A better fitting welcome could not have been prepared!
She took me to the Residence Le Village, the hotel where I would be spending the night, and which, it turned out, was owned by her family!
Her father, Fabio Cavagnetto, greeted me with a very warm welcome and made me immediately feel like I was staying with family and friends rather than in a hotel!
After quickly checking in and freshen up, Noemi took me immediately to the first of the many village ovens, which I would be visiting during the day.
As we arrived, the mayor of La Magdeleine, Mr. Edi Dujany, and his wife, Katia, were already very busy preparing the dough for the rye bread for the 111 inhabitants, as it has been the tradition for centuries.
Many villages in the Valle d’Aosta have at least one community oven, where families, in the past cooked the rye bread, in turn, for their own consumption, usually once a year, early in the winter.
It is a simple type of bread, made of wheat and rye, with only a little yeast. It was suitable to feed the families that for many months of the year would have been in winter isolation.
If freshly consumed it has a delicious fragrance, but in the past it was kept on special wooden racks called “ratelë” for many months, where it became dry and hard, but well preserved. To break this hard bread you then needed a special tool, a kind of guillotine called “copapan”, which is still in use today.
To eat it, it had to be dipped in hot broth or hot milk or dipped in the sauce, which was obtained by the long cooking of the meat, like stews.
Many village ovens have been restored and are still used today: an aggregation opportunity for the locals and a way to pass down local traditions.
So after taking in the beautiful aroma and warmth of the bread dough, enjoying a few moments looking at the skillful hands of the bread makers, laughing and joking all the time, I was then introduced to Patrick Joly, which is a guide for Aosta Welcome, the official tour guide association of Aosta.
Patrick was going to take me around the village of La Magdeleine to visit the old water mills.
These particular mills still retain the great fascination of long gone times, when the mill was the centre of peasant civilizations. There are eight mills, located in the hamlets of Brengon, Clou and Messelod, all aligned along a small stream of water that originates from some springs beneath the slopes of the Monte Tantané; seven of them have been fully restructured and three of these mills, like they did for so many years in the past, can be used to grind the cereals that were once cultivated on the sunny slopes surrounding the village.
We obviously started from the top and walked our way down, visiting all mills, which are now also a sort of little museum, dislocated along the course of the stream, storing and displaying also the tools which were used by the local peasants in the past.
Patrick explained about the importance of these water mills in the rural economy of the past in this area. Importance which is also confirmed by the fact that the right to use a given mill for a predetermined time was also frequently transferred, with the ownership of a field or a portion of land.
The singularity of the mills also consists in the fact that they are arranged “in a chain”, in order to exploit the little available water: they were opened all at the same time and only for few days a year, since water is quite scarce in this area, even though we are in the mountains. I did not realise it, till I came here: the Aosta Valley is actually a very dry area of Italy. There were precise “milling regulations”, in which both the mode and timing of operations were determined, as well as the rights of use of each participant or owner.
This singularity has also affected the “technology” used in the mills: they are horizontal waterwheel mills, in direct engagement with the water, i.e. without the use of gears or mechanisms, with respect to millstones.
Although there is a freely accessible path connecting the various buildings, to discover the mills and their important history, I strongly recommend you take a guided tour, just like I did, organized in each season by Aosta Welcome.
Patric took me also to visit the local miniature model village which Mr. Castelli, a man from Milan who moved with his wife to the village few years ago, has painstakingly built during the years and which is a true to scale representation of La Magdeleine. A stunning work of art!
By now the bread was ready and we went back to the village oven, where the Mayor and his wife were waiting for me with a large batch of freshly baked rye bread. After chatting to the local villagers, taking the official photos of the event, finally tasting the delicious bread with some good wine, Patrick whisked me off to Antey-Saint-André, where I was going to visit another village oven and meet some more important people.
The Village of Antey-Saint-André
Antey-Saint-André, with its just over 580 inhabitants, is the first municipality of Valtournenche and a tourist resort located at 1074 m above sea level, at the base of the mountains that precede the Tantané massif. The landscape is made up of vast meadows dominated by coniferous woods, helped by a temperate climate and by the happy location of the area under the shelter of dominant winds.
Patrick took me to Buisson, a little hamlet, part of Antey-Saint-André, and also location of the local village oven. In Buisson there is also the cableway that leads to Chamois, the highest municipality of the Aosta Valley, reachable only through this means of transport.
Here I was welcomed by Cristina Sanna, the local education, cultural, social and transport city councilor.
The village oven was coming to the end of the day of baking, but was still like a beehive: old men in front of the oven, drinking wine, chatting away and checking that the bread was coming along nicely, ladies busy packing all the already prepared breads, cutting cheese and sausage for all to eat, kids running around laughing and playing.
The building was warm, but it was not just the warmth of the actual oven, which was making it such: it was the atmosphere, impregnated with love, laughter, people just relaxing and having a good time, doing simple things. All generations mixing and breaking bread together: just like it used to be in the old times. I felt right at home.
I started chatting to the old men: one was Cristina’s father, the others were locals who every year prepared the bread for all their fellow villagers. One of them was also a real baker, who used to have a proper bakery in town.
They told me about the tradition of Lo Pan Ner, about the tools, which were used to prepare the bread, they offered me their food and wine. I was just like one of them. The most wonderful feeling: I was not a guest, the blogger, I was part of their party!
Then the Major Mario Bertuletti arrived and started to help the men to take the bread out of the oven.
The baking had ended and now, since it was lunchtime, they all took me for lunch in the most traditional restaurant of Antey: Hotel Pession.
Again I was treated like I was one of the family, seated between the Major and the Baker, treated like a guest of honour!
I got to try the rye bread in the most typical of the Aosta recipes: the Seupa à la Vapelenentse, slices of rye bread covered with Fontina cheese and soaked in a meat broth. You have no idea of how delicious that was! It was followed by one of the best Brasato and mash potatoes I have ever tasted (after my mum’s one) and by a really good Tiramisu’ – yes, must admit it, Mrs. Pession, the cook, prepared it following the original recipe from Treviso and thanks to the amazing milk of the Aosta cows, the mascarpone tasted like whipped cream – amazing!!!
I was then taken to visit the local mill of Fiernaz where there was a beautiful temporary exhibition about the local traditions of the Valtourneche. The exhibition was by Mirko Cianci, a local researcher, author of many books about Antey, and Teresa Santomarco Terrano, an antropologist.
Still recovering from the bread tasting in La Magdeleine, the cheese and salami samples and the huge meal at Antey, it was time for me now to go to Torgnon, the third of the villages who were giving me hospitality.
The Village of Torgnon
So, just like if we were on a relay race, Cristina handed me over to Valeria Machet, the vice-major of Torgnon.
The municipality of Torgnon is spread along 800 and 3.320 meters of altitude. The municipality is made up of twenty-two fractions distributed on a large and sunny morainic terrace and it counts just above 500 inhabitants. It is a very old settlement, dating back before the Roman Empire.
Valeria, who is also a teacher as well the local ambulance driver, took me, first of all, to visit the local ethnographic museum “Musée Petit Monde”, located in the hamlet of Triatel, the most complete eco-museum complex of the Aosta Valley, built to protect and enhance the memory of the roots of the community.
Here I was able to view a racard, that is a granary, the only one in the Valley, a grandze, that is a rural building and a hayloft, all built between 1462 and 1700, fully restored and set in the original fashion, to allow visitors to experience what it would have been life in the Valley in the past.
The tour begins on the bottom floor of the granary, with the permanent exhibition entitled “The Labyrinth of Memory“, which tells the true story of Man, the origin and evolution of the village, the life and social organisation of the inhabitants of this little corner of the past.
One of the most interesting museums I had the pleasure of visiting and the perfect ending to such a frenetic day. After visiting the mills of La Magdeleine, experiencing the village life of Antey, here in Torgnon it all came together by seeing how the people used to live.
After a quick trip to the local mill and being too late to go and visit the local village oven of Torgnon (they had been baking all day and by 6pm they finally closed up, exhausted), Valeria took me to the restaurant Jour et Nuit, where I would be having my evening meal.
There I was joined by Luigi Navoni, one of the ski instructors of Scuola Sci Torgnon, who was so kind to entertain me for the evening, telling me about life in the mountains of the Cervino, the customs and the food.
Katia Gorret, the owner of Jour et Nuit, is a very passionate lady, who welcomes all her guests as family. The restaurant offers traditional food from the valley but for occasion of Lo Pan Ner, Katia developed an all rye bread menu!
She first got me to try out some Lo Pan Ner with Lard, Honey and Chestnuts…..divine!
Then came the rye bread with Fontina cheese, followed by a creamy and delicate Risotto with Pancetta and Chestnuts. The main meal was braised beef with juniper and potatoes.
By then I was so full I had to skip on the dessert, which was a total shame cause Katia developed a Tiramisu made with Lo Pan ner and I would have truly loved to try it out.
Finally Luigi took me back to the Residence Village, where I collapsed on my very comfortable bed savouring what an amazing fun packed day I just had!
AIFB in Aosta
On Sunday 15th October, after a quick breakfast and a last intake of mountain air, I made my way to the city of Aosta where I met with my fellow bloggers from AIFB: Cinzia Donadini, Camilla Assandri, Mariateresa Cutrone, Antonella Marconi, Tiziana Bontempi and Elisabetta Riva.
Here we set up a stand promoting an event which the Region of Aosta had organised in collaboration with the association: a list of recipes made with the Pan Ner developed by a range of food bloggers from all over Italy.
In the main square of Aosta there were also tastings of the sweet pastries of the tradition of Valle D’Aosta. demonstration of some stages of cereal processing in the mountains, presentation of objects made by Valdostan craftsmen, free distribution of rye flour meal as well as a little local food market with the specialties of the area.
And after a lovely day dispensing recipes to all the population of Aosta and its visitors, I finally made my way back to the foggy and grey Venetian countryside, dreaming of coming back soon to this beautiful part of Italy, where I made lots of new friends and where people and tradition still go hand in hand, without worrying about internet and social media, but still living a real life!