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THE GRINDING OF GRAIN
The milling of grain has undergone quite an evolution. I have sat on giant riverbank boulders in Yosemite next to 1,000-year-old grinding holes bored into the rock by millions of pestle pounds and twists, munching on a sandwich and marveling at how tedious it must have been, when all I had to do was stop by a bakery for my bread. Fortunately for me and my picnic, advances were made. Small hand mills called querns were developed, but we were still the ones doing the grinding. Finally the power of animals was harnessed to turn large grindstones, and then water, which became the standard power source for many years. Water mills gradually became more refined, efficient and automated. Every town of any size had a mill nearby. As a small kiosk at Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park in St. Helena, Calif., explained, an 1840 census counted 23,661 grist mills in the U.S. Thomas Jefferson remarked in a letter, "... there is no neighborhood in any part of the United States without a water grist mill for grinding the corn of the neighborhood." Clallam County was no exception. A mill once ground grain for humans and livestock on Salt Creek near Port Angeles.
What happened next changed milling, and bread, dramatically. Stone mills crush the grain spreading the nutrient-rich oily germ throughout the flour. This is excellent for the health of those that eat it but drastically shortens the shelf life of the flour, as it will go rancid in a couple weeks. The problem of rancidity is a problem early millers wanted to solve and thus the roller mill was created. The roller mill allows large volumes of grain to pass through quickly and become cracked, making it possible for the germ to be separated from the rest of the kernel. The starchy endosperm can then be ground and without the germ to spoil it, the shelf life of the flour becomes nearly indefinite. As a side benefit, the flour and the bread made from it could then be made bright white, which at the time was widely believed to be better. Problem solved, right?
What we sacrificed for shelf life and for bright white loaves is nutrition. The germ is essentially the yolk of the grain, wherein is contained the potential for new life and most of the nutritional value. Studies have shown that wheat flour without the germ has 20 to 30 percent of the original nutritional value of the grain. This is quite a sacrifice! This is also the reason for "enriched" flour. It only has to be enriched because the nutritional value was removed in the first place. The wheat plant itself was sufficiently enriched by the soil and water; we are the ones who removed it. But then who is going to buy flour that is labeled "devoid." Enriching flour is proving to be a poor substitute for leaving it as it was. There is a body of evidence that strongly suggests enriched flour is not processed by the body as well as stone ground flour. Science isn't completely sure why, but as tends to be the case with human health, the body has an intuition that can't be completely fooled by artificiality.
Thankfully, stone mills did not go away. I have the privilege of access to a small stone mill made in North Wilkesboro, N.C. This one is powered by electricity. Though it is a bit loud, I do enjoy dropping grain in the hopper, watching it bounce down the chute to be shattered by spinning stone, knowing that this is as fresh as it gets and the bread born from it is meeting the grains' full potential for sustenance, and if I did it correctly, is quite delicious too.
So we don't necessarily have to sacrifice. Grain can be milled and sifted in small batches and then refrigerated to stave off rancidity for transportation. Or better yet, turn it into bread. It really is better fresh, particularly corn and rye.
I'm looking forward to more experimentation. It's just a small mill now, but soon I will have access to a much, much, larger version, complete with a sifter for making soft white breads without giving up the nutritional value. Bread bakers and bread eaters shouldn't have to choose between nutrition and taste. Both are locked within the kernels. All you need to get them out is two pieces of spinning granite, technique and time.
Roger Stukey is an owner/operator of Cedar Creek in Sequim.