A traditional dry-milled corn from Switzerland’s Rhine Valley nearly disappeared during the 20th century, but a revival of its production has since expanded into other products, strengthening its demand and securing its future for generations to come. I recently tried making Rheintaler Ribelmais in my own kitchen—with mixed reviews from my children, to be honest—but there are many different ways you can enjoy this versatile product that has a long history in Switzerland.
What is Rheintaler Ribelmais?
Rheintaler Ribelmais is made from an heirloom variety of sweet corn which is dried and ground into cornmeal. Grown in the Rhine Valley, this product has traditionally been used as a breakfast cereal. The warm and humid climate in this area is described as being ideal for growing corn.
For roughly 300 years, starting in the 17th century, Rheintaler Ribelmais was a staple food in this region of Switzerland. Then after the two World Wars, production dropped off dramatically. In part, the growing prosperity of this region and changing tastes may have led to its decline, with farmers seeing greater profits from raising feed corn for livestock. By 1997, according to Patrimoine Culinaire Suisse, only about 4 hectares were used to grow this corn.
One year later, the Verein Rheintaler Ribelmais began to form with the goal of promoting and preserving this long-forgotten cereal. With this organization in place, the production of Rheintaler Ribelmais has increased over the years. By 2000, it was the second food product to earn a protected status from the Swiss government. For this product to earn the AOP mark (Appellations d’origine protégées), the corn must be grown and processed in the Swiss cantons of St. Gallen and Graubünden, or in the Principality of Liechtenstein.
Today, you can buy Rheintaler Ribelmais in different forms, such as the Original, used to make the traditional breakfast dish, and the Bramata, with a coarser grain. You’ll also find it used in other food products, like Rheintaler Culinarium Maisbier (beer) and Ribelmais-Poularde (chicken).
Making Rheintaler Ribelmais
I first encountered Rheintaler Ribelmais as an ingredient for a recipe in my Betty Bossi cookbook. Unfortunately, I never found it any of my local grocery stores or specialty food markets around where I live in Suisse Romande. When I crossed the Röstigraben and visited the Slow Food Market in Zürich, I was excited to finally find some to try cooking at home. (Please note: you can purchase this product via the Verein Rheintaler Ribelmais and other online retailers.)
Other than making bread, one of the main ways to cook with Rheintaler Ribelmais is to make the breakfast staple known as Türggenribel or Ribel. First, you must soak the cornmeal for several hours. Then, you pan-fried the lump of dough with butter and break it down until it resembles small lightly-browned pebbles of cornmeal. The truly authentic way to eat this dish, as described in my Betty Bossi cookbook, is to dunk spoonfuls of the finished product into milk-laden coffee before eating it.
I didn’t try the coffee-dunking method, although I will next time, but I took another recommendation from my cookbook to serve the Ribel with homemade apple puree. My oldest son thought it was great and asked for seconds. My youngest son didn’t like it at all. He would probably have agreed with author Richard Weiss, who felt that it was better suited for chicken or pig feed (from Weiss, Richard, Volkskunde der Schweiz. 1978, as noted by Patrimoine Culinaire Suisse). This dish definitely feels like comfort food, and the dense cornmeal quickly fills you up!
Beyond these centuries-old recipes, home cooks and chefs are finding new sweet and savory ways to use this regional product. If you’re looking for more recipes, check out the website maintained by the Verein Rheintaler Ribelmais under “Rezepte” (in German).
Have you tried making Rheintaler Ribelmais? Where you do buy this product? What are you favorite ways to serve it? Please leave a comment below or send me an email with your thoughts and opinions. Many thanks!