Chiara Lanzarotti remembers when “everyone was a farmer” in the small town of Teglio.
“It’s still like a postcard,” Lanzarotti said, pointing her cane to the south side of Italy’s Valtellina valley, surrounded by the Orobie Alps, which are snow-speckled, even in mid-July.
Lanzarotti’s maternal ancestors, the Tusetti’s, settled in Teglio on Valtellina’s north side – 16km south of the Italian-Swiss border in Lombardy and 900m above sea level – in the 1600s, and cultivated buckwheat, a traditional food staple for farmers tending their terraced mountain crops. Flour ground from the plant’s triangular seeds, grano saraceno in Italian, or furmentùn in Valtellina’s dialect, was central to a hearty tagliatelle-style pasta dish called pizzoccheri, which was topped with vegetables like cabbage and potatoes, as well as cheese and butter, which fuelled them from dawn to dusk.
While it’s hard to know when the dish was first made, in the 1799 book Die Republik Graubündent (The Republic of Graubünden), German historian Heinrich L Lehmann wrote about a “perzockel” dough made from buckwheat flour and egg, which was cooked in water and served with butter and grated cheese. Lehmann noted that farmers living in small homes would also use this same dough to make a simpler, gnocchi dish as they didn’t always have the luxury of time or space to roll and cut the dough into flat tagliatelle noodles.
By the end of the 1800s, there were 5,000 acres of buckwheat cultivated in Valtellina. Today, however, only 50 acres are farmed, primarily in Teglio. Buckwheat production declined drastically with the rise of industrialisation in the 1950s and was replaced by more lucrative crops like wheat, which was substituted for some of the buckwheat flour used for making pizzoccheri.