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The Story of Traditional Food in Europe – Part 1
In the Swiss Alps at Martigny Croix beyond the old railway station building, there is a gravel path that rises gently past the rocky wide Dranse, a tributary of the great Rhône river.
With a sudden ascent the path turns sharply, climbing hard towards the hamlet of Les Ecoteaux. At 905 metres Les Ecoteaux is the tapered end of a ridge that separates the valleys of the Rhône and the Bagnes.
This is not apparent deep among the stands of mixed conifer and deciduous trees. The switchback climb is arduous. Experienced walkers go slow, like mountain goats finding their way cautiously over firm ground.
Gradually the path levels out onto a pleasant meadow, rising gently again towards the sprawling chalets of Chemin, a village 250 metres higher.
Here the walker faces a choice.
To descend back down, to the town of Martigny, where the L-shaped Rhône slides into Lake Geneva, or to turn towards Ven above Bagnes or to continue upwards towards the Col des Planches, at 1411 metres the first high peak along the ascending ridge.
However at the splendid Col des Planches the path gives respite to the walker, descending slightly more than 100 metres down to Le Planard, a panoramic viewpoint.
Also a crossroads. Five paths test the resolve of the walker at this junction. Three go down, two go up!
Always a good time to stop and contemplate.
If it is too early for lunch, a snack from sun-dried raisins, dried apricot halves, slivered almonds, crushed walnuts, whole hazelnuts, some wild berries, an energy bar of honeyed seeds and grains, with apple juice or pear nectar will raise energy levels.
If it is lunch-time, chunks of semi-hard cheese, wafers of air-dried beef, torn soft flatbread, a handful of spelt berries and mineral water will sate the appetite.
A meal not too dissimilar was found to have been eaten by a walker on a different mission 5,300 years ago. Ötzi, a 45-year-old hunter frozen in the ice, had consumed berries, bread, fruit, grains, meat and seeds shortly before his absurd death.
Much has been made about his discovery, but if Ötzi’s stomach contents reveal anything, it is one amazing fact. Traditional foods have been with us for a very long time, and they haven’t changed as much as we might expect.
Although agriculture, herding and dairy farming were changing the habits of the last hunter-gatherers, carbohydrates from barley, einkorn and spelt grains, minerals and vitamins from berries, fruits, grains and seeds, and protein from various wild meat remained essential to well-being.
Ötzi would have cooked over an open fire the meat of animals recently killed. He would have baked flatbreads made from coarsely ground cultivated grains, einkorn perhaps. He would have eaten dried food, such as mushrooms, carried in pouches. And he would have gathered fresh berries, roots and seeds.
The absence of cheese from Ötzi’s diet is not relevant to that time. Apparently he was lactose intolerant, as many people were in those days and remarkably still are. Cheese-making is a consequence of civilisation. It was the only way to store surplus milk.
Today a walker in the Alps would eat a meal similar to the last one Ötzi consumed. Air-dried meat would replace the freshly-cooked meat, yeast bread would replace the unleavened flatbread, but that is it.
Anyone walking today in the high mountains without high-energy provisions might not meet the same fate that Ötzi suffered, but they would find themselves wondering what to eat from the wild, and that would make them exactly like the ancient Iceman.
Back above the canton of the valleys in Switzerland, the most interesting path to take is the one that rises toward the ridge at Les Blisiers under the 2472 metre high peak of Pierre Avoi, towering over Verbier in the Bagnes valley and Saxon in the Rhône valley.
It is interesting because the path runs alongside an intact Roman-built viaduct. The Roman workers would also have been familiar with a lunch made from berries, grains, roots and seeds. They might even have been fortunate enough to have had some kind of meat to savour, and perhaps a swig or two of wine from local grapes to allow to linger.
Dropping down into Saxon on the valley flour, the walker will visit a known hostelry that serves barley soup. After a hard walk in the last days of summer, this enigmatic winter soup is a reminder of how little the world has actually changed over millennia. It will also be hearty and conducive to well-being, just like the walk.
Then it is a short train ride back to Martigny, where the walker will take a postbus to Martigny Croix or stroll back thoughtfully alongside the Dranse.
Until the next high climb through culinary history!