Turning maize to gold

How poor people's food became a gourmet product

The Onsernone valley is said to be the wildest valley in the region; it's also the keeper of many secrets. In 1850 more than 3000 people, mainly emigrants, lived here; today, fewer than 800 face the challenges of everyday life. This steep, winding road conceals a wealth of culture and tradition. If the rustic stone houses in Vergeletto could talk, they would almost certainly unveil the mystery of the mysterious fragrance of popcorn in the village that, now as then, percolates through its alleys.

The story behind the "popcorn flour"

We are talking about farina bóna, the fine-ground flour made from maize. Rye was once milled in the Onsernone valley; the straw was mainly used for straw crafts. After 1849, it was the turn of maize to arrive in the valley from lowland areas such as Lombardy and Mendrisiotto; the carts bringing the gold travelled under arduous conditions. Maize has never been planted in the valley itself, as there is little fertile soil.

Farina bóna is made using various types of maize that used to be roasted over an open fire – nowadays in a roasting pan – which is then brought to the mill for grinding at the right moment, namely when two-thirds of the grains have burst.

 

Why is farina bóna so important for the Onsernone valley?

Until the Second World War it was considered a staple food and consumed as an everyday dish with milk, or as soup with water. Eating habits changed after the war, as a result of which the flour lost its importance. At the end of the 1960s production stopped completely and the secrets of the making of farina bóna were lost along with the last millers. When the mill in Loco was restored in 1991, talk was revived of farina bóna. However, it was only in 2001, when a teacher returned to the valley after many years away, that farina bóna milling was restarted. He had found out about the craft and the production process by talking to older inhabitants. Today farina bóna is sold under the "slow food" label and added to dishes and desserts to enhance their flavour. The miller and his wife produce over eight tonnes of this "poor man's gold" annually.

The history of the stone houses tells of laborious manual labour, of survival, and of a traditional product whose existence continues to provide pleasure. 

A visit to the mill in Vergeletto or a guided tour of the mill in Loco, where polenta is made, is well worth the effort. Treat yourself to an introduction to these wonderful traditions and enjoy sampling the delicacies.