Errands to the Organic Farm and the Old Flour Mill

Once in a while, Leonardo and Paola ask me along for the ride when they head out for errands in the countryside, and I was delighted to accept their offer to return to a small organic truck farm where Paola likes to buy fruits and vegetables, out in the big valley on the road to Bettona. I have been there before, and had the opportunity to carry back a few vegetables, but Paola buys in such quantity that she is willing to go a long distance to get what she considers “the very best.”

Paola selecting tomatoes at the farm stand

Paola selecting from many tomato varieties at the farm stand

Last summer, we came for peaches and apricots, but this time it was tomatoes of several varieties, red and yellow peppers to roast, fresh potatoes and eggplant. The apples were just arriving to the farm stand from the acres surrounding the little house, but the summer produce was nearly finished for the year. Paola picked carefully, and the vendor gave her special prices, since this was to be the last weekend that most of the vegetables that she bought would be available.

The last of the summer fruits and vegetables on display at the farm stand

The last of the summer fruits and vegetables on display at the farm stand

While the farmer’s wife weighed out Paola’s purchases, I picked out a big bag of golden delicious apples for a caramel apple tart I made later for Paola and Leonardo. I had just been to the supermercato myself, unfortunately, and had no more space for vegetables in my refrigerator.

The farmer's wife helps Paola, gives her special prices for the last tomatoes of the season

The farmer’s wife offers Paola special prices for the last tomatoes of the season

Each bag was weighed, and we paid and were gone

The farmer’s wife became the cashier, and then we were off.

Leaving the farm stand with many bags of produce, we drove about 15 more miles to Torgiano and an old mill located on the river, where locally grown wheat has been milled for centuries. Paola is a fabulous baker—making croissants and pastries for the Fratello Sole B&B guests, served hot with the morning coffee and tea—but she insists on organic flour, and buys in bulk from this specialty mill, Molino Silvestri Vinicio.

The sales room of the old mill, where Paola put in her order

The sales room where Paola waits to put in her order

Inventory of flour sacks waiting for a buyer

Inventory of flour sacks waiting for a buyer

While Paola put in her flour order and shopped in the little sales area, also featuring local lentils and rice, Leonardo took me for a tour of the mill. The grain is ground between two millstones upstairs, which turn in huge wooden enclosures, but the flour flows through piping and into open plastic barrels, with a powdery coating of flour dusting every surface nearby. It is a slow, tedious process—although powered by electricity now—and the flour emerges slowly in a fine stream falling into the barrel, where it is collected and then later weighed and sealed into bags.

Pipes deliver the flour slowly to open barrels

Pipes deliver the flour slowly to open barrels

Fine stream of flour arriving at the collection barrel

Fine stream of flour arriving at the collection barrel

Twin mill stones upstairs grind the grain into flour

Twin mill stones upstairs grind the grain into flour

Leonardo asked permission to walk me through the older parts of the mill, where I could see the equipment that was used a hundred years ago, or more. Outside one wall of the mill, he showed me the pond of water dammed and then released to run the mill when power was needed. We climbed up concrete stairs and passed the old pipes on the way to the turbine, which was horizontal and embedded in a cylinder in the floor. The pressure of the water released by the dam outside the mill turned the turbine, which powered the millstones to grind the grains. This older part of the mill is no longer used, but Leonardo thought I’d be interested to see both the current and the older equipment, and see how the water provided power years ago.

Water from the dam is released to power the turning mill stones

Water from the dam was once released to power the turning mill stones

Older milling equipment upstairs, no longer in use

Older milling equipment upstairs, no longer in use

Turbine submerged in the running water, which provides the power for the mill

Turbine submerged in running water, which once provided the power for the mill

Sitting by the door, waiting for Leonardo to carry them to the car, were Paola’s two bags of organic flour—“tipo 0, biologica.” There are two grades of flour usually sold in Italy. “Tipo 0” is slightly less refined, and used as all-purpose flour, and “biologica” is the Italian word for “organic.” It is the only flour Paola uses, with many women here believing that the more refined flour (“tipo 00”) may be carcinogenic, and reasoning that slight improvements in their baked goods with a finer flour is not worth raising the risk of cancer. Now that Paola has lost both of her parents to cancer, she errs on the side of caution (and superstition, perhaps).

Paola's order waiting for Leonardo's muscle to load into the car

Paola’s order waiting for Leonardo’s muscle to load into the car

On our way out, Leonardo pointed out the small figure of St. Francis embedded in a niche in the wall of the mill. He told me that this building was originally a monastery, since the 1200s in the time of St. Francis, and the monks milled the crops of those farming grains nearby in the valley. This small statue is a remnant from the original monastery mill, preserved as a reminder of the many centuries of continuous operation here beside the river.

Small image of St. Francis is a reminder of the monks who built this mill centuries ago

Small image of St. Francis is a reminder of the monks who built this mill centuries ago

We were soon on the way home—passing a rare sight for me. Some of the farmers in the valley had racks in the sun, curing tobacco leaves that they had grown as a secondary crop. Leonardo told me that the racks were rolled back into barns at night, to keep them from morning dew or frost, and the racks came out to air dry on sunny days. I rarely see tobacco, grown here in small patches, but the two-foot long leaves are distinctive, and I can identify tobacco fields as I pass them on the train, too. Only the mature leaves at the bottom of the plant are harvested—until more leaves reach the size the farmers desire, and then they are cut and hung on racks to dry, along with leaves harvested earlier. As long as the plant continues to mature the huge leaves, the harvest continues.

Tobacco leaves drying on racks near the barn

Tobacco leaves drying on racks near the barn, taking advantage of the sunshine

I’m always delighted to be asked to come along on errands, especially ones like this trip to buy produce and flour—and Leonardo always makes certain that I get to hear the history, and see for myself how the milling was once done in this small former monastery.

(September, 2013)

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