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Strong, insulated, long-lasting

Rye straw thatched roofs

A new roof built using an ancient art (M. Contarino/PNAM).

Along with local slates (called lose), rye thatched roofs were the most common in the area. Rye a robust and undemanding cereal, was the main agricultural crop. None of it was wasted: the grain was turned into flour for bread, the good straw was used roofing, and anything left over was used for animal feed or bedding. Rye straw was cheap, light, a good insulator and long-lasting: a properly thatched roof could last for over forty years.

An experienced thatcher would only choose the right straw: tall, thin, flexible with small ears and rich in silica, which grew on the poorer soils with less favourable exposure. It was cut by hand to conserve the full length of the stalks, taking care not to break them. The ears had to be threshed carefully, to make sure there was no grain left to tempt little rodents to chew holes in the roof.

Selected, cleaned and tied in bundles the rye straw was fixed to the wooden framework of the roof. The stalks that protruded over the ridge were bent over onto the other side of the roof. On top of the first layer, a second layer of the finest quality straw was laid. This whole bed of straw was then held down by horizontal wooden poles running the length of the roof. A final tidy up of the straggly ends under the poles, everything was patted down with a flat board, a quick rake voilà, the roof was ready. The final result was a steeply inclined roof (45°), to allow the snow to slide off without bearing on the structure and for the rain to run off without soaking in and causing the straw to rot. Strong, insulated, long-lasting, rye thatch has recently been rediscovered for green building.

For thatch enthusiasts we suggest visiting some of the outlying hamlets, where, although they have been abandoned to time and the weather, some remains of old thatch still survive. Places not to miss are, Tetti Bariao e Bartòla just above Sant’Anna (Valdieri) these have had restoration work done by the Rye Ecomuseum, Tetto Virutra near Roaschia, some of the hamlets around Desertetto (Valdieri) and Esterate (Entracque) and around Palanfré (Vernante).

In 2008, the Ecomuseum had a rye thatched roof rebuilt using traditional techniques. You can see it on the way into Sant'Anna. As the years pass the roof is ageing well, it has stood up to massive snow falls, scorching sun and visits by hungry will be there for a long time yet to remind passers-by of the time when straw was more common than tin, when villages didn't contrast with the scenery but were part of it, because they were built of the same materials, using crafts perfected over time to construct something that would last, they were doing a lot with very little.

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