“Bündnerfleisch”1 – cultural heritage and export hit

by Heini Hofmann

“Bündnerfleisch” with the help of the sun: Probably the last small-scale drying enterprise using traditional methods of Renato Giovanoli in Maloja (which will soon have to close due to the lack of a successor). From this principle, the Alpine physician Oscar Bernhard was inspired for his heliotherapy by concluding that when the sun dries the meat, this must also work with wounds. And it did so!
(picture Heini Hofmann)

What salami means for the raw sausages, “Bündnerfleisch” means for the panoply of dried meat: uncrowned queen. But contrary to the salami who also acquired some Swissness but still remains an Italian “invention”, the question: “Who invented it?” is easy to answer with regard to the “Bündnerfleisch”: the “choge”2 “Bündners” [inhabitants of the canton of Grison]!
Drying is an ancient and widespread preservation method, which is based on a simple consideration: If you extract water from the easily perishable food meat, the process of decomposition is slowed down. This was already known by the prehistorian hunters as it is proven by Ötzi, the man from Similaun, who carried along at his last tramp dried meat of alpine ibex and deer as provision. But the “Bündner” people thought a bit further: They didn’t only dry perfectly but although placed it skillful on the market.

A Phoenix from the ashes

Short sideglance: Because the consumption of meat should double in the next 40 years according to the population growth, it is frantically looked for an artificial “in vitro” surrogate. As compared to the conventional livestock method the production of this would need only half of the energy and only one-hundreth of the land consumption. Moreover the primate “man” should be spared of the burping of the cows that are causing harm to the world’s climate …
That men and farm animal form a very old partnership and that grazing animals animate the countryside, is thereby forgotten. After the gen-food debate, the vision of molecular gastronomy and the nano-food debate now follows the prospect of retort meat. In the summer of 2013 in London the first laboratory-burger was tasted, made from cattle stem cells. Polite comment of the invited tasters: not really liable for amusement tax!
Due to such prospects one turns to those delicacies which were able in a long tradition to become a labelling product of our country: besides chocolate and cheese in the meat sector “Bündnerfleisch” succeded, namely to gain international fame and popularity. A tried and trusted, delicate and digestible natural product, a phoenix from the ashes of above mentioned futuristic-technocratic “food” culture.

“Binden”- or “Bündnerfleisch”

Even older than the label “Bündnerfleisch” is the term “Bindenfleisch”. Actually it is the umbrella term for all three typical Swiss dry meat sorts: “Bündnerfleisch”, Wallis dry meat and “carne secca del Ticino”. The term “Bindenfleisch” traces back to the cloth strings with which the salted pieces of meat were enrolled in former times and hung up for drying.
The term “Bündnerfleisch” which occurred initially in the 20th century stems from a tactical consideration: to demarcate by clear designation of origin from analogous products and first of all to protect from imitations (just like Emmental cheese!). This payed off: today “Bündnerfleisch” belongs to the most exported Swiss specialities indeed, the air-dried delicacy has the status of a culinary cultural heritage. But this obliges.
The “Verband Bündner Fleischfabrikanten VBF” (Union of grisons meat fabricants) with four bigger and more than thirty smaller meat drying enterprises have worked out a functional specifications document together with the Federal Office for Agriculture. This was not easy because it was necessary to convert mainly the smaller enterprises for the extra effort and expense by certification and strict controls. Today the benefit of these self-imposed standards for a credible and constant product quality is undoubted.

Salting – curing – drying

“Bündnerfleisch” (Romansh: Pulpa, in the Engadine: Puolpa) is a product of protected geographic declaration (“Geschütz­te Grographische Angabe”, GGA) and, as such, is subject to a state treaty between Switzerland and the EU regulating the mutual recognition of designations of origin. The curing as well as the drying of the meat have to take place within the canton of Grisons, with the latter obligatorily having to be dried above a minimum altitude of 800 metres (a little lower within the southern Grisons valleys). Only the packaging may be assembled outside of the canton of Grisons.
“Bündnderfleisch” is known in the trade as a low-fat raw cured product of beef meat, preferably from lean animals. First, the thoroughly cooled pieces of meat are cleaned of fat, tendons and fascias and are rubbed with a mixture of spices, salt and other curing substances (those latter ones are rubbed on individually). Then the pieces are stored, stacked and restacked in a drum (more modern facilities use slowly rotating tumblers), where brine is produced during the process.
After the curing, the meat pieces are washed and woven into nets in order to dry while hanging, similar to support stockings. In smaller facilities, the wet nets and bandages are placed outside for a couple of days to start the drying process, prior to being moved to a dark drying room for at least three months. During that time, in order for the residual fluid to be dispersed evenly, the pieces are compressed multiple times. Moreover, this step is responsible for giving the meat pieces their characteristic rectangular shape.

There is no smoking of “Bündnerfleisch”!

Modern large-scale enterprises operate with room and air conditioning technology, allowing them to control temperature, humidity and air flow more precisely and with the added benefit of being able to produce “Bündnerfleisch” during the summer, which – given the high demand – has become mandatory. This method may not be quite as romantic, yet it is working optimally and quite a bit more timesaving: 14 days of salting, 14 days of a sweat and pre-drying period and lastly the real drying time of twelve weeks during which the meat is compressed five times.
Whether traditional or modern methods are used, the work stages remain the same. The artisanal enterprise is dominated by manual labour, whereas the modern facility is at an advantage when it comes to production reliability. However, both styles of production have to factor in a weight loss of about 50% ! That, and the many steps needed in the production process explain the pricing of “Bündnerfleisch”. But the most basic determination of all remains that the preservative effect exclusively is a result of curing and drying. There is no smoking of “Bündnerfleisch”!

Premature suspicion of smuggling

One important, finishing step after drying the meat – prior to packaging it – even triggered a bit of a political tiff: after the rotten meat scandal and the “neighing lasagna”, German authorities had become wary and in the summer of 2013, the main customs office in Singen (Germany), in a move that turned out to be premature, sued a Swiss company for allegedly declaring meat of lower quality as “Bündnerfleisch” and smuggling it into Germany without paying taxes.
The reasoning was that, according to a laboratory examination, the edible mould typical of authentic “Bündnerfleisch” was missing. Without that mould, the meat would only be dried beef meat not exempt from taxes, which is why 250,000 euros of duty were levied post-clearance. The Swiss Federal Office of Agriculture, however, was able to clarify the misunderstanding.
While being part of the meat maturing process, it is essential to wash off the mould prior to packaging the meat because it would otherwise rot. The EU commission in Brussels went over the accounts and instructed all customs offices to consult the Food Administration of Grisons for the certification of authenticity of Bündnerfleisch for duty-free import into the EU in the future – and all was well again ....     •

1    dry-cured beef from the Grisons (Switzerland)
2    coll.: damned, bloody

(Translation Current Concerns)

“Bündnerfleisch” wrote history of medicine!

HH. What dried meat has to do with medicine? A lot! Sometimes ground breaking discoveries are based on coincidences (example: Penicillin) or on everyday experiences. This was also the case with heliotherapy (sun phototherapy treatment). It was an aha-experience, which in 1902 led the legendary doctor Oscar Bernhard from the Engadine Alps to come up with the idea of ​​the sun tanning.
Sudden inspiration with consequences
He was very worried about a festering wound, which did not want to heal, in the hospital of Samedan. One morning, when the sun was just laughing through the hospital windows, the decisive brainwave came – in analogy to the preservation of the “Bündner Bindenfleisch” specialty: tanning and fresh air would dry, granulate and heal the wound. And thus it showed! Heliotherapy of surgical tuberculosis was “invented” and should henceforth be a worldwide triumph.
If “‘Bündnerfleisch‘ and tuberculosis were not two contradictory terms, the dried meat sector should be proud to be the force behind a medical strategy of a century (before chemotherapeutics existed). “The ‘Bündnerfleisch’-principle saved indirectly hundreds of thousands of people’s lives” would perhaps be an even better slogan than the bureaucratic latin than the Federal Council´s fit of laughter slip “Bü-Bü-Bü-Bündnerfleisch” …

Healthy and digestible

Profile of the final product:

Rectangular shape, deep red colour in the whole of the product, typical cured flavour, aromatic by drying in free-flowing air, high nutritional value, low in fat, rich in vitamins and trace elements. – For consumption cut across the fibre, sliced very thinly.

100 g of “Bündnerfleisch” contain:

Energy: 652–1024 kJ (154–243 kcal)
Protein: 34–44 g
Fat: less than 7 g
Carbohydrates: less than 2 g
Water: 46–53 g

The dried meat range

Switzerland

Bündnerfleisch – beef taken from the upper thigh or shoulder, with a protected geographical indication
Wallis dry meat – a Wallis beef specialty from the 14th century
Carne secca del Ticino – this includes not only beef, but also Coppa and Pancetta
Appenzeller Mostbröckli – gently smoked before drying
Jurassier Braisi or Breusi – air-dried and smoked beef brisket

Other countries

France: Brési (beef brisket, named after the reddish Brazilian wood)
Italy: Carne secca, Bresoala and Slinzega (the latter two Veltlin)
Spain: Cecina (slightly smoked)
Finland: Kuivaliha (dried reindeer meat, dried outside under specific conditions)
Bosnia-Herzegovina: Suho meso (beef, or lamb, cold-smoked)
Egypt, Turkey, Armenia: Pastirma (beef and camel meat)
Ethiopia: Qwanta (beef, slightly smoked, sliced into strips)
Mauritania, Morocco: Tichtar (sun-dried camel or gazelle meat)
Somalia: Odka (sun-dried beef)
Nigeria: Kilishi (sun-dried beef)
South Africa, Namibia: Biltong (beef, ostrich and wild meat)
Canada: Bògoo (Amerindian specialty from caribou meat)
USA: pastrami (jewish beef speciality), pemmican (Amerindian bison proetin food) and beef jerky (also a specialty of indian beef, now a popular snack)
Mexico: Carne seca (long, marinated beef strips)
Mexico, Cuba: Tasajo (a Caribbean beef specialty)
Brazil: Carne-de-Sol (dried beef or goat) and Charque (llama meat)
Afghanistan, Pakistan: Lahndi (dried sheep or beef meat)
China: Bakkwa (dried, sweet-salty beef, pork or lamb meat)
Mongolia: Borts (dried yak, beef, mutton, goat or camel meat)
Nepal: Sukuti (morsel of dried beef, pork, buffalo, or pork-meat)