I learned this first hand when I worked as an apprentice at the CASFS educational farm at UC Santa Cruz. We sowed a quarter-acre with three strains of heirloom wheat, chewed the milky kernels as they swelled, dried, and turned golden in the sun, scythed the stalks by hand then fed them into a noisy threshing machine. The result? Buckets of whole wheat berries, ground into flour and baked into the most alive bread I’ve ever made.
This fondness for mills started in childhood, with summertime visits to the Old Mill on Nantucket, whose sweeping sails dominated the low-slung island's horizon from any direction. In Minneapolis, I toured the excellent Mill City Museum, on the site of a formerly dilapidated flour mill, then brought home bags of heirloom wheat berries and freshly ground flour and polenta from the Mill City Farmers' Market. In Arkansas, I made dozens of biscuits from cornmeal ground at the War Eagle Grist Mill, a historic water-wheel mill that still produces dozens of flours (the mystique may have been upped by getting to drive there in a purple Lotus with the mill's current owner, now in her 70s). Through the Lee Brothers’ Boiled Peanuts catalog, I’ve special-ordered Guilford Mills’ remarkable grits, which are stone-ground in a North Carolina grist mill dating back to the 18th century.
And here, we are lucky enough to have the Bale Grist Mill, right next to the lovely, hike-worthy Bothe Napa State Park, tucked among the vineyards, oaks, and manzanitas, right off Highway 29 between Calistoga and St. Helena. The mill was fully restored a few years ago, and is open for milling tours most weekends, three dollars well spent.
If you were the kid (or grownup) who pored over David Macauley’s The New Way Things Work, this is the tour for you. Milling with a water wheel makes basic physics come to rattling life, energy and motion transformed through simple engineering into productivity. It’s also a delight for grammar and etymology geeks: little did I know how many common words and phrases--“nose to the grindstone,” “cockeyed,” “fair to middling”--derive from milling. You put your nose to the grindstone to sniff for ozone, the smell you get in the air after a lightning strike; the scent of it can mean that the two millstones have become unbalanced, knocking into each other and striking sparks from the friction. Fair to middling are the two central grades of flour to emerge from the bolter, bookended by fine and coarse; if you’re feeling “fair to middling,” you’re right in the middle, so-so.
But now is the time to get to this mill for a visit. As well-loved as the grist mill is, its future is uncertain, thanks to stringent cutbacks in California's parks budget. As detailed in a recent Napa Register article about local park closures, both Napa Bothe Park and the Bale Grist Mill could be closed to the public as early as February, unless two local park groups, the Napa County Regional Parks and Open Space District and the Napa Valley State Parks Association, get approval (and funding) to take over the parks from the state this spring. It's ironic, of course, that such a historical resource could shut down just as a groundswell of consumer interest in local grains and grain products is rising.
For the moment, the Bale Grist Mill sells polenta, cornmeal, spelt, buckwheat, rye, and whole-wheat flours, all ground in the mill. Although, for liability reasons, the flours are marked "not for human consumption," the millers are scrupulous about cleanliness and sanitation during the milling and storage process. Any grain or flour touched or spilled during the milling process goes into a big bag marked "sweeps." A local farmer picks all the sweeps once a week, a welcome addition to his pigs' daily mash. Using both raw wheat kernels (wheat berries) and the mill's coarse, bran-rich bread flour, I made a dense, almost scone-like whole grain loaf inspired by the recipe for "Holly's Whole Wheat Bread" in Romney Steele's book My Nepenthe.
Wheat Berry Bread with Fruit and Nuts
Adjust the combination of dried fruit, seeds, and nuts depending on what's in your pantry, and what you like best. Dried persimmons, often available at Bay Area farmers' markets at this time of year, add bright color and a pleasant sweet chewiness to the finished bread.
Yield: 2 loaves
Prep Time: 90 minutes, plus 3 hours' rising time
Cook Time: 45 to 60 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours, 15 to 30 minutes, plus 3 hours' rising time
1/2 cup whole raw wheat or spelt berries
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups whole milk
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup honey
1 package (2 1/2 tsp) active dry yeast, or 1 oz fresh (cake) yeast
5 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour, plus more for the work surface
2 tbsp ground flax seed (optional)
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup raisins, dried cranberries, or chopped dried apricots or persimmons, soaked in hot water to cover for 10 minutes if very dry or wizened
1/4 cup unsalted sunflower or pumpkin seeds, plus 2 tablespoons for sprinkling, lightly toasted
1/2 cup hazelnuts, pecans, or walnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
1. Cover wheat berries with 3 cups water in a medium saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to simmer. Reduce heat, cover, and cook gently for 1 hour, until berries have softened and are tender to the bite but not mushy. They will absorb most of the water; drain any excess in a colander. (Step 1 can be done up to 4 days before you make your bread; store cooked and drained wheat berries in the refrigerator until needed.)
2. In a medium saucepan, heat milk until just beginning to bubble around the edges. Add butter, honey, and salt. Stir to dissolve, then let cool until tepid.
3. In a large bowl, sprinkle or crumble yeast over 1/4 cup lukewarm water. Let stand for a few minutes, then whisk vigorously to dissolve any remaining yeast. Beat in the milk mixture and 5 cups of the flour, mixing to form a soft dough. Stir in wheat berries, raisins or other dried fruit, 1/4 cup of sunflower or pumpkin seeds, and nuts.
4. Sprinkle flour over your counter or work table. Scoop the dough onto the work surface and knead for about 6 minutes, adding more flour (up to an additional 1/2 cup) in increments to keep dough from getting too sticky. Various errant mix-ins will try to push their way to freedom by popping out of the dough as you knead. Don’t let them get away with this; push them back into the dough and continue kneading until dough feels elastic and smooth.
5. Wash and butter your large bowl. Put the dough back into it, turning it over to coat with butter. Cover with a clean damp kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm place for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or in a cool place for 3 hours.
6. Deflate the dough by sinking a fist into it. Divide in half and shape into two loaves. Grease two 8"-by-5" loaf pans. Put shaped dough into pans, cover with damp towel, and let rise again for another 45 to 60 minutes, until loaves have doubled in bulk.