In the footsteps of the confectioners

In the footsteps of the confectioners - Culture

Peder Benderer is the third generation of his family to create nut cakes, ballas engiadinaisas and traditional pear bread. However, the history of confectioners in the Engadin goes back much further: they travelled the globe from the 18th century until the outbreak of the First World War. In 1999, Peder Benderer launched his career by setting off on the trail of his ancestors.

"We’re not actually a family of confectioners in the strictest sense – it was my grandfather who first set up the business and I’m now the third generation of the family to run it," Peder Benderer explains at the outset. But this history dating back over 70 years was not enough for him – when he took over the production facility in Sent and the shop in Scuol from his father, he wanted to find out more about his spiritual forefathers. And so, to mark this new chapter in his life, he decided to learn more about the past, setting out on the trail of those confectioners who left the Engadin more than 200 years ago to seek a new life elsewhere. Peder Benderer spent 20 days on foot, hiking from Sent to Florence.

Peder Benderer, did you always want to become a confectioner?
Yes, since I was little. Even as a child, I spent all my time with my grandpa in the bakehouse. I never considered doing anything else.

What do you find so fascinating about this job?
I’m fascinated by the diversity. The possibilities for combining sweet and not-so-sweet flavours appear endless. It’s that creative element to my work that means I never ever get bored.

You took over the business from your father in 1999 – and the first thing you did was travel to Florence. Why?
The history of our company is part of a much older story, that of the Engadin confectioners. I wanted to get to know that history better, or rather: to experience it for myself. The idea was to go to Florence, and to keep an eye out for confectioner’s shops and particularly nice locations along the way. So I set out along with a friend – on foot, naturally, just as the Engadin confectioners did in the past.

«Taking things slow and being mindful is exactly what I need to come up with creative ideas and enjoy new creations.»
Peder Benderer

What did your mum and dad say to your travel plans?
My father believed in me, but my mum was less enthusiastic about the whole idea. But I didn’t let that influence me.

So is it natural for confectioners to travel as journeyman, like other craftsmen do?
No, not at all. It was simply a spontaneous idea of mine – I always liked doing things a bit differently to everyone else. I was inspired by a book on the subject written by Dolf Kaiser, "Fast ein Volk von Zuckerbäckern" (Almost A People of Confectioners), which traces the history of the Engadin confectioners. Back in the 18th century, they left the valley and went out into the wide world to seek their fortune elsewhere, no doubt driven by the lack of opportunities to make a living here. They built up a unique network of bakeries all the way from Oslo to Sicily and England to Russia. That fascinated me and I wanted to find out what it means to be a confectioner in the Engadin today.

A good 16 years have now passed since that hike. What memories do you retain?
Oh, lots of things spring to mind ... I have particularly strong memories of the beautiful old Roman road that crosses the Padan Plain. And one small confectioner’s shop sticks in my memory: it was so brightly decorated, full of colour with all sorts of unusual packagings on display. And, of course, the day – it must have been at the beginning of the second week – when we simply couldn't find a hotel room anywhere after hiking for twelve hours. Thankfully, an old lady took pity on us and offered us a place to sleep for the night.

And what specifically did you bring home with you from your travels? A special recipe perhaps?
No, I didn’t bring back a recipe as such. But I did pick up a number of different product ideas along the way, which I then turned into recipes when I got back home.

What else did your long hike teach you?
First and foremost, the leisurely pace of my journey introduced me to a new state of mind – one that is based on taking things slow and being mindful. Even now, I find this is exactly what I need to come up with creative ideas and enjoy new creations. I hope both these qualities come together in my products. The Engadin word 'Creaziun' does not form part of our company name "Peder Benderer – Creaziun Pastizaria" by accident: it stands for our desire not simply to process the raw materials we work with, but to do something creative.

When running a business, you probably can’t afford to take time off for a 20-day trip too often. Where do you get your inspiration from now?
It’s true, I don’t get to travel so often now. In 2009, I was in Odessa for a few days, where I visited the legendary Café Fanconi, which has been around since the end of the 18th century. I discovered high quality products in Ukraine and returned home with lots of new ideas. Apart from that, I try to make the occasional trip to a big town or city – especially in Germany – so that the new impressions I gain there will inspire me.

You’ve followed in the footsteps of both your father and grandfather. What makes you different to them?
Oh, that’s hard to say ... I don’t think I’m typical of someone from the Engadin. I’m not as direct or even stubborn – something we’re often accused of. I’ve always liked to travel, I’m open to new things and have lots of different interests like art and architecture. I don’t think my grandfather made it any further than Chur.

Describe a normal working day at Peder Benderer for us.
No two days are alike. Sometimes my working day starts at midnight, sometimes at five in the morning, depending on what we have planned. It’s particularly intensive in winter when we have 16 to 20 people working in production and sales. I especially like those days in which I can sit down with my employees and try out new aromas and recipes with them and other guests as I search for new product ideas.

So which products are your own personal favourites?
Hmm … I’m quite proud of our 'Tuorta da Naiv', or snow cake, which we only produce in winter and whose packaging is designed by a different local artist each year. I’m also fond of the 'Zuckerbäcker Nusstorte'. Compared with a traditional nut cake – which we also sell, of course – they are made with less sugar and more honey, and we make sure to use the very highest quality of walnuts.

You’ve been running the business for a good 16 years now. What comes next – is the next generation perhaps ready to step up?
My aim is to keep going as long as I’m enjoying it and having fun. Although my daughter has learned the trade, she is currently pursuing other studies in Zurich. I don’t want to talk her into anything – let’s just see what happens.