Visitors invariably fall for the heady scent of the Engadin forests. The experience is familiar: you reach a clearing warmed by the sun and instinctively stop to take deep breaths of the fragrant air. The gnarled Swiss stone pine gives us rest, protection and strength: no wonder, the “Queen of the Alps” is a strong character herself and a real survivor.
Swiss stone pine trees grow very slowly. Braving wind and weather, they slowly but steadily reach out to the sun. They experience their first blossom at an age at which we humans already go into retirement, yet this phase of life is merely the end of their youth. Generally, they live to be several hundred years old – sometimes more than a thousand!
This robust species of pine – also known as the Arolla pine, or by its Latin name, Pinus cembra – happily survives the Engadin winter as well as high altitudes. It stoically withstands temperatures as low as -40 °C and leaves other tree species way behind at the treeline. Its powerful roots wrap themselves around bare rock and penetrate deep into cracks for a hold and for water. The vast network of roots can hold mountain slopes together and so protect settlements below from rockslides. For centuries, the people of the Engadin have revered their “Queen of the Alps”, and can barely imagine what life without her would be like.
With its exquisite filling of caramel and chopped walnuts, the Engadin walnut cake is a classic, known well beyond Switzerland’s borders and exported far and wide. Confectioners from the Engadin who had emigrated created this sweet temptation in France, but their colleagues back home faced a problem: walnut trees did not grow in the Engadin! A delicious alternative was soon found in the form of the tasty seeds of the Swiss stone pine, which resemble the soft pine nuts sold in groceries and are highly nutritious. However, the job of extracting the seeds from their hard shells within the pine cones was painstaking: it took one person four hours to fill one glass with seeds. As a result, only guests at special events had the opportunity to enjoy this particular nut cake.
Today, Swiss stone pines are protected, and harvesting the cones is strictly controlled. The only locals allowed to help themselves to the seeds are nutcrackers: native birds without which our forests would be only sparsely populated with Swiss stone pines. Only these brown birds with distinctive white spots feed on the tree’s seeds, which are high in fat, and carry them beyond the edge of the forest. Without this distribution by air, the heavy seeds would simply plop down to the forest floor to germinate at the foot of their parent tree.
Gnarled outside, smooth inside… Swiss stone pine timber is ideal for making furniture and for interior decoration. The fact is ancient knowledge, and has given rise to traditions lovingly nurtured for centuries. The typical Engadin “pine parlour” with its rustic furniture and often ornate panelling on walls and ceiling is wonderfully cosy and welcoming. Step into one of these beautiful rooms, and you immediately want to linger: no doubt also because of the soothing effect of the scent of Swiss stone pine, which has been proven to lower heart rate. Pillows filled with fine shavings of Swiss stone pine also ensure a deeper night’s sleep. And a calmer one, too: snorers swear by them!