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You Are What You Eat When it Comes From Mountains

05/06/2015 12:37 EDT | Updated 05/06/2016 05:59 EDT
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The Rosengarten mountain massif (3,000 meters) in the Dolomites near Bozen, Autonomous Region of South Tyrol, northern Italy's German-Italian speaking region, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Dedicated mountain sports people and enthusiasts share the feeling of being changed by their exposure to mountains. Often this creates a bond with kindred values expressed in a love of pure nature, or an ability to persevere through difficulty.

In Europe many mountain cultures embody these values, and despite the recession people are determined to find a way to retain their mountain life.

Increasingly niche food products represent a solution by promoting human health and the health of the environment. Yet launching a mountain food label is far from easy.

In Montefortino, a gloriously beautiful mountain village in Central Italy, Alice Alessandrini started a mountain food label in 2012. Her pasta making business Regina dei Sibillini produces wheat in the foothills and also at 1000 meters altitude in the Monti Sibillini National Park.

"People don't often hear of durum wheat growing in the mountains but this is what we believe in," the company said in a statement.

The cool mountain air, in all seasons, allows the grain to be stored in ventilated silos without necessitating fumigation or any spraying.

This represents a big health benefit for consumers because generally large-scale producers of grain use one of two main registered "fumigants" for stored foods. One of these called Methyl bromide, was banned as of 2005 in developed countries, and will be banned worldwide this year. The other, now predominant, is Phosphine. Phosphine was used as a pesticide in the 1930s, and studies have shown that fumigants are not totally residue free. Further, insecticides like Deltamethrin are often used as a top-dressing or layer treatment on stored grain.

Instead, the mountain location and the small scale of production offer a healthier product.

Being a small family business ensures that the flour is transformed into pasta within a month of being milled, eliminating the need for chemical stabilizers. Following the traditional practice the pasta is drawn through bronze wires and allowed to slowly dry in a cool temperature, preserving the flavour of the mountain grain.

After completing a degree in political science Alice faced the typical dilemma of having to leave the mountains to try to find work. Instead of out-migrating she started her own business. The biggest challenge is promoting a high quality product in a tight economy with a small budget for publicity.

In an effort to stimulate biodiversity and food security Alice has begun to cultivate historic grains that were abandoned. In Central Italy a grain called "Cappelli" was grown from the year 900 until the 1960s. This grain has a particularly long stem, growing up to 1.60 meters high. When it matures it is often flattened by the wind and rain making it hard to harvest. Compared to durum wheat it produces half the amount and is much more labour intensive. Is it worth it?

"I walk through our mountain fields in all seasons. It gives you such a feeling..." Alice pauses with emotion. "Being in the mountains and feeling so close to this beautiful crop of grain which used to once grow and is brought back to life again. The feeling is so strong, it is so beautiful, it makes me want to stay in the mountains and not have to descend..."

Their stylish mountain logo and mountain inspired packaging has a positive affect on consumers.

"Generally consumers are now very educated," Alice says, regarding her experience at food fairs. "They care about the fact that we use mountain water and that we have uncontaminated high altitude land."

Still, launching a mountain label is hard climb. The small sections of land in different mountain locations, instead of enormous flat fields make the project more expensive. In addition severe weather and steep gradients are not a help. The traditional way of making the pasta, which is slower and done at low temperatures increases the labour costs. To enter into a competitive market with a medium to high price product requires extensive publicity. But everything has its budget. Alice, like many small mountain producers, estimates it will take at least five years with increased investment of time and money before any profit emerges.

"It is a daily battle to continue our work. But it is our passion. We have invested everything in this project, which we believe is our future."

Few urban businesses would be able to exist a year without profits.

Mountain labels embody mountain cultures, for many small businesses undertake enormous endurance to evolve, and these foods usually represent love of nature that is synonymous with a commitment to health and perseverance.

You are what you eat when it comes from mountains.

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