Farina Bona, a Ticino specialty

Während außen das Mühlrad durch Wasserkraft angetrieben wird, sorgt im Innern der Mühle noch immer ein alter Mechanismus für die perfekte Feinheit der Farina Bona in Circolo d'Onsernone, Schweiz

Farina Bona is the good flour from Vergeletto

The memory of the time of the clattering mills in the Onsernone Valley in Ticino is fleeting. There are hardly any written records. Nunzia Terribilini, the last miller of Vergeletto died in 1958 and no one has followed up the tradition of Farina Bona after her death. Many details have to be painstakingly researched and tried out again. What kind of corn was used? How long was it roasted? How fine was the sieve? The original Farina Bona product no longer exists. It was only in 1991 that an old mill was restored in the Onsernone Valley in the village of Loco, about 15 kilometers from Locarno. Today there is a museum dedicated to the history of the mills and to the special flour of this area.

Die Dörfer im Onsernonetal haben sich seit je her die Kraft des Wassers zunutze gemacht, das die steilen Hänge hinnunter tobt. Im 17. Jahrundert gab es zwanzig Mühlen im Tal
The villages in the Onsernone Valley have always harnessed the power of the water that rages down the steep slopes. In the 17th century there were twenty mills in the valley / © Photo: Georg Berg

The teacher with the long breath

The small museum also aroused Ilario Galbani ‘s interest in the almost forgotten specialty of his homeland. However, it took many years before the teacher’s kindled passion for the good flour from the Onsernone Valley would result in a wide range of products. Records and memories of the people from Vergeletto have helped him in this process.

Der Mann mit dem Strohhut. Viele Jahre hat Ilario Galbani an der Wiederauferstehung von Farina Bona getüfftelt
The man with the straw hat. For many years Ilario Galbani worked on the resurrection of Farina Bona / © Photo: Georg Berg

Over time, Ilario discovered the almost forgotten secret of Farina Bona from Vergeletto. The special aroma, the almost beguiling fragrance that is transmitted to the baked product, lay in the roasting of the corn kernels – before – they were ground.

Effektive Steillage. Das Wasser rauscht in Vergeletto gleich an fünf Mühlen vorbei. Heute ist nur noch die Mühle von Ilario Galbani in Betrieb und gleichzeitig ein offenes Denkmal, das jederzeit besichtigt werden kann
Effective steep slope. The water rushes past five mills at once in Vergeletto. Today, only Ilario Galbani’s mill is still in operation and is also an open monument that can be visited at any time / © Photo: Georg Berg
In einer Kaffeeröstmaschine werden die Maiskörner bei 200 Grad geröstet. Wenn rund 1/3 der Körner gepoppt sind, ist der perfekte Röstgrad für Farina Bona erreicht
In a coffee roasting machine, the corn kernels are roasted at 200 degrees. When about 1/3 of the kernels have popped, the perfect roasting degree for Farina Bona is reached / © Photo: Georg Berg

Farina Bona and the smell of popcorn

We enter the small production hall in Vergeletto. Ilario has housed his machines in the former gymnasium of the village school. It smells like popcorn. But somehow more complex and spicy than a bag of popcorn in a movie theater seat. Ilario roasts corn kernels for us in a coffee roasting machine. He now knows that when about 30 percent of the kernels have popped at a temperature of 200 degrees, the roasting process is finished. More popped grains would no longer produce enticing roasted aromas and fragrance, but would make the flour bitter in the final product, Ilario explains. Millers used to roast the rye and later the corn in large pans.

Eine lustige koreanische Maschine presst aus dem groben und leicht gesalzenen Mehl kleine Cracker
A funny Korean machine presses small crackers from the coarse and lightly salted flour / © Photo: Georg Berg.

Today, Ilario Galbani owns other production machines in addition to his roasting machine. Right now, a small Korean machine is producing round crackers from coarse Farina Bona. They are lightly salted and packaged as snacks for a Swiss supermarket chain. The small grocery store in town sells all of Ilario’s products: Farina Bona, polenta flour, crackers, cookies and even ice cream.

Eine Auswahl der Produkte mit Farina Bona. Vom Polentamehl, über Biscotti bis zu Bier. Alles ist auch im Dorfladen von Vergeletto erhältlich
A selection of the products with Farina Bona. From polenta flour to biscotti and beer. Everything is also available in the village store of Vergeletto / © Photo: Georg Berg

Student help for the rediscovery of Farina Bona

It was not always like this, because the rediscovery of Farina Bona dragged on. There was a lack of concrete recipe ideas at the beginning. Quantities had to be tested out. The teacher with a passion for good flour was helped by his own school class. In 2005, Ilario gave the students from the Onsernone Valley a special task. He gave them small quantities of Farina Bona to take home and they were asked to come up with dishes using the traditional flour of their homeland. The result was numerous recipe ideas for soups and cakes. One recipe development from that school lesson has made it onto restaurant menus as far away as Locarno. It is an ice cream with Farina Bona and consists of milk, cream, sugar and only five percent Farina Bona.

Leise rieselt das Mehl heute wie damals durch Siebe mit verschiedenen Feinheitsstufen
Today, as in the past, the flour quietly trickles through sieves with different degrees of fineness / © Photo: Georg Berg

The path from rye to corn

Around 1850, the first corn reached the valley. For many centuries, the inhabitants of the Onsernone Valley produced their farina bona from rye flour. There was more than enough of it due to the existing straw industry, because in the 16th and 17th centuries baskets and hats were made from rye straw in the Onsernone Valley. The special trick, in the production of rye flour was the roasting. In this way the flour was preserved from mold and was storable for the long winter. With the construction of a big road, the first corn from Lombardy reached the Onsernone Valley. The inhabitants began to deal with the corn in the same way they were used to do with the rye. First roast, then grind.

Ilario Galbani füllt den gerösteten Mais in den Trichter der Mühle. Dazwischen blitzen die bei der Röstung gepoppten weißen Maiskörner auf
Ilario Galbani fills the roasted corn into the mill’s hopper. In between, the white corn kernels popped during the roasting process flash / © Photo: Georg Berg

The Parco dei Mulini in Vergeletto

At its peak, there were 20 mills in the Onsernone Valley, five of which were in Vergeletto. Today, as an ensemble, they form the Parco dei Mulini Vergeletto. All the mills are preserved in very different conditions. A staircase leads up the hill. Plaques recall the marriage of the mills. The water still rushes today. It falls from the 2,300 meter high Pizzo Cramalina down into the valley.

Wo einst fünf Mühlen untereinander angesiedelt waren, fließt auch heute noch das Wasser teils durch ausgehöhlte Baumstämme
Where once five mills were located one below the other, the water still flows today, partly through hollowed-out tree trunks / © Photo: Georg Berg
Je höher man den Parco dei Mulini in Vergeletto hinaufsteigt, desto schlechter der Zustand der verlassenen Mühlen / © Foto: Georg Berg
The higher you climb up the Parco dei Mulini in Vergeletto, the worse the condition of the abandoned mills / © Photo: Georg Berg

The mills in the Onsernone Valley

Partly pipes, partly hollowed-out tree trunks carry the water to the mills. Ilario has restored the lower mill for his production. He always wears a fine straw hat as a reminder of the days of straw production. Ilario climbs up the small wooden ladder. It is no longer comfortable here next to the grinder. The rooms of the old mill have been used for other purposes for many years. Now the room is not as high as it used to be, and when he fills the bag with the golden and roasted corn kernels into the hopper, he has to pull his head in.

Kleiner Hebel mit großer Wirkung. Von innen kann Ilario Galbani das Wasser, das vom über 2.000 Meter hohen Picco Cramalina stammt, auf das Mühlrad lenken
Small lever with a big effect. From the inside, Ilario Galbani can direct the water, which comes from the Picco Cramalina at an altitude of over 2,000 meters, to the mill wheel / © Photo: Georg Berg

From the inside, he uses a lever to direct the water outside onto the mill wheel. Ilario unlocks the millstone and very slowly movement comes into the mill wheel. In the sparse records of Nunzia Terribelini, the last miller of Vergeletto, the production quantity of one kilo per hour is noted for this mill. This is very little, but it is due to the hardness of the corn grains.

Langsam rieseln die Maiskörner ins Mahlwerk. Die Härte des Maiskorns war für die Müller damals problematisch. Es brauchte viel länger als Roggen, um zu feinem Mehl vermahlen zu werden
Slowly, the corn kernels trickle into the grinder. The hardness of the corn kernel was problematic for millers back then. It took much longer than rye to be ground into fine flour / © Photo: Georg Berg

For the flour, Ilario uses a sieve with different degrees of fineness. The gradations allow him to catch fine, medium and coarse flour at the same time, which is used for different products. The Vergeletto mill is a kind of open monument. Here visitors can stop by any day and see everything independently. Every Tuesday Ilario Galbani also offers guided tours combined with a small tasting.

Secondary use in Parco dei Molini. Old millstones serve as steps. The special structure of the stones can be seen clearly. The grooves help to grind the hard corn kernel better / © Photo: Georg Berg

The use of Farina Bona in the kitchen

The silky, fine Farina Bona is often mixed with white flour in baking. It is so intense in flavor that a ratio of ¼ Farina Bona to ¾ white flour or other flours such as spelt is sufficient. A recipe from the old days describes stirring Farina Bona into hot milk and adding some fresh fruit like blueberries or blackberries. Ilario himself prefers to eat Farina Bona in glacé or classically stirred into warm milk. Other producers have also begun to experiment with Farina Bona. In the region, for example, there is also a wheat beer refined with Farina Bona. Ilario is happy about every well-made product innovation. This is how this specialty from the Onsernone Valley will be preserved for the future and saved from another phase of near oblivion.

Aus den unterschiedlichen Mahlgraden entstehen unterschiedliche Produkte. Das feine und seidige Farina Bona Mehl wird zum Backen und Aromatisieren von Speisen genutzt
Different products are obtained from the different grinds. The fine and silky Farina Bona flour is used for baking and flavoring dishes / © Photo: Georg Berg

As small as the world of Vergeletto and the history of Farina Bona are, the knowledge that Ilario Galbani has accumulated on the subject over the years is vast. In conversation, he reports that there are some relatives of the Farina Bona in the world. In the Canary Islands it is called gofio. It is composed of cereals, legumes and a little salt. In Nepal and Tibet it is a staple food, called tsampa, and is made from roasted barley, sometimes rice or wheat.

Im Grotto America in Ponte Brollo, wo sich einst die Auswanderer trafen, um gemeinsam den weiten Weg nach Amerika anzutreten, steht heute auch ein Glacé mit Farina Bona auf der Speisekarte
At the Grotto America in Ponte Brollo, where emigrants once met to embark together on the long journey to America, a glacé with farina bona is now also on the menu / © Photo: Georg Berg

We leave Vergeletto and the Parco dei Mulini with a packet of Farina Bona for private cooking experiments. At lunch at the legendary Grotto America in Ponte Brollo, the glacé with Farina Bona promptly catches our eye on the menu, and a scoop of this very special Ticino specialty rounds out lunch.

Culinary seconds from Angela Berg

Farina Bona, the precious flour from Vergeletto, has now arrived in my kitchen. I keep it in a tin can. Every time I open the lid, that simple yet sensual fragrance wafts toward me. Although my supply is dwindling, I can’t help but add a teaspoon to my breakfast porridge in the pot every morning. The Ticino popcorn elixir is a real upgrade for the poor man’s food that originated in Scotland.

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About the good flour from the Onsernone Valley in Ticino

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The research trip was partly supported on site by Switzerland Tourism

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