“We decided to grow potatoes because potatoes were the staple that fuelled the Alps’ demographic boom”, explains Federico, a hand gesture encircling the tiny field, no longer than half a football field, stretching on front of us.
With hindsight, finding ourselves talking about tubers at 1200 meters of altitude above Fontainemore in the Lys valley sounded a little bit strange. But believe it or not, that was what we had come up there to do.
The Lys valley is the first Aostan valley for visitors arriving from the flatland, and it’s one of the longest: by the time it meets its natural end at the foothills of the formidable spurs of the Rosa glacier, it’d have stretched about 50 kilometers and about three sphere of influences and dialects: Piedmontese, French and, finally, Walser, an offshoot of Swiss German that crossed the mountains sometimes in the 15th century.
We had driven roughly half that far to get to our meeting, with frequent stops to give way to herds of cows heading downhill. It was October and the last few stragglers were busy doing désarpa, transhumance, when cows leave the high pastures and retreat to the more hospitable stables on the flatland for the winter. Parked on the side of the road, a shepherd leaning on our tickling bonnet to prevent the gentle but muscular animals from thrashing our car with their hundreds of kilos of weight, we looked the parading cows passing by, serenanded by the deafening sound of their bells. Crowns of flowers adorned the heads of some of the beasts, marking the cows who had been the pride of the season. We watched them stroll past, almost believing to see them strutting with their heads high, honoured for having been awarded a prize rooted in history.
Past the hamlet of Fontainemore we left the main road, winding up the sunny side of the valley, the one where locals lived and grew their crops. Coumarial, a place too small to be called a village, was our destination. There we found Federico and the rest of the visionaires – four in total – that had decided to bring agricolture back to the Alps, at least half a century after it had left, seemingly foor good.
Paysage à manger, a French name that my sketchy language skills can roughly translate into “Landscape you can eat”, is the name that the four entrepreneurs have given to their business. Powered only by their muscles (and the occasional digger, even though that proved to be a mistake) they set off clearing ancient fields, long since abandoned. On six allotments between 950 and 1500 meters along the valley, they planted 22 varieties of potatoes that, once, were grown on those same fields or that were popular in other valleys of the western Alps.
Potatoes brought a revolution to the Alps. Mountains have historically been an unforgiving environment for growing crops: the steep terrain required the creation of terraces, whose ruins can be seen around every alpine village; productive soil was very thin and a climate prone to the extremes made for scarce harvests. Alpine populations struggled to make a living out of cereals such as rye and barley, sturdy vegetables and roots. Then came the potatoes: easy to grow, thriving in poor soils, used to high altitudes and extreme weathers, potatoes also generated a higher number of calories than an equivalent amount of rye or beet. The fields at Coumarial that we visited all switched to potatoes in the 18-19th centuries and had been dedicated to them until after the war, when urbanisation and a new industrial boom made the inhabitants of the valleys leave the villages in their thousands.
This wealth of knowledge, refined and honed over centuries, then lied forgotten for more than half a century. As people fled the alpine villages and the remaining communities turned to tourism and cattle raising, potatoes became an industrialised staple. Plot ten times the sizes of those we saw at Coumarial became the norm, and potatoes the sizes of hand grenades were what customers wanted. Tiny, coloured tubers with odd shapes didn’t have a place in the modern, industrial agriculture, as well as the use of animal fertilizers or the habit of planting potatoes in hay. The 22 varieties grown in the valleys became virtually extinct, grown only by museums in order to preserve their heritage.
This is what Paysage à Manger wants to try and revert, challenging the assumptions dogmatised by fifty years of industrialised agriculture. It’d be easy to portray them as eco-warriors fighting against a world of Monsantos and genetically modified crops, but it’d be absurd. Their aim, instead, is simpler: it’s about discovering their past and their heritage anew while, at the same time, offering a niche product for those yearning for new tastes.
Setting up a business in a country such as Italy, which seems to be going out of its way to make such things difficult, in a field so “out of fashion” such as agriculture might sound as a recipe for disaster. Let’s add up a colder-than-usual summer and a fall in the number of visitors to the Alps and the outlook would be even bleaker. Despite that, the first year has been good, with about 5 tonnes of potatoes, half of which already sold weeks after the harvest.
Encouraged by this good result the four partners are planning new crops, new harvests and other improvements; whether they’ll succeed remains to be seen. What I know is that Are We There Yet? is soon going to enter the uncharted territory of cuisine blogging: I got some potatoes to cook.
Many thanks to Federico, Rita, Federica and Roberto at Paysage à Manger. Click here to visit their website.