Micooula, the humble Christmas bread

Today there are so many potential tourist attractions in the world, so many places to discover. Often they slip under the radar, like the community kitchens that are many countries’ best kept secret. But these places have long been vital to civic life, a means of bringing people together. Like in the Valle D’Aosta, where huge communal ovens were used to bake Micooula, a bread based on wheat, rye and chestnuts, spiced up with raisins, dried figs and flakes of chocolate, in which the nearby Camporcher Valley does a very good line.

Traditionally, housewives would prepare this leavened bread at the start of winter, to be eaten over the dark months until the arrival of spring. They would mix it into hot broths, or even soak it in milk. These were essential conservation techniques to keep the bread from going stale: under absolutely no circumstances could it be chucked out, even when as hard as a rock.

But Micooula wasn’t ever thus. Originally, back in the medieval period, it started life as a fancier version of humble rye bread, which at the time was much more common to the mountainous areas than bread made of wheat, the latter being less resistant to the freezing temperatures. But for the Christmas period, they would spice it up a bit – indeed, in the Occitan dialect of southern France, micooula means something like “small, special bread” – with some roasted chestnuts and Vien de nus grapes, a red grape variety still grown today around Aosta. Over time, these fresh grapes were replaced by raisins, and roasted chestnuts by boiled ones. Then figs inveigled their way in, along with walnuts and chocolate.

Some people soften the dough up a bit by adding eggs, butter and sugar, turning Micooula into an actual sweet. But it’s the simplest version that remains the most widespread and the most widely appreciated.

Now, it’s something made in the countryside during the Christmas period. It’s a symbol of the Aosta Valley: it represents the land, work, and the future. The association “Les Amis de la Micòoula” has spent years dedicating itself to the cultivation of rye, wheat and other mountain produce, such as potatoes and chestnuts, and to the good management of land that would otherwise go to rack and ruin.

So, how do you make Micooula? It’s pretty simple. First of all, you need to get some wheat flour (1.2 kg, to be precise), 800 grams of rye flour, 1 litre of warm water, a pinch of salt and 50 grams of beer yeast, either fresh or dried. You mix these ingredients until you get a smooth paste, which you should then let rest for an hour. Once you’re done that, you can mix in the boiled chestnuts, raisins, walnuts, chocolate flakes (dark chocolate, naturally), and then shape the dough into balls, each about the size of a fist. Bake them in the oven at 180 degrees centigrade for at least 80-90 minutes. Tradition dictates that you use a wood fired oven, but an electric one will do fine.

Image: a simple, homemade rye bread