Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Old Time Milling and Polenta

Last weekend we drove over the hills to Calistoga, then down the road to the Bale Grist Mill, a California State Park, to watch them mill corn into polenta.

Here is a diagram of the mill, with the water coming in by flume to the top of the water wheel which turns the wheel, which turns various gears, which in turn turn the millstone to grind the grain, also known as grist. The numbers refer to the description and photos below.

We had a very good guide in the miller. He knew the history and brought it to life with vivid descriptions of the Napa valley full of wheat fields (instead of grape vines), of the mill being a community center where neighbors met and gossiped while the grain was being turned into flour or corn meal or polenta (a coarser corn meal), of the flume being built to the newly constructed mill pond on higher ground so that there was year round water with some force behind it to turn the water wheel,(#1)

and stories about Dr. Bale who founded the mill and of Dr. Bale's widow making sure that after he died the mill had good French mill stones instead of the local quartz ones that the mill started with...and those stones are still in use!

He did a wonderful job of explaining the working parts of the mill, too, including the gears under the main floor.(#2)

Who knew that wooden gears were better than metal ones in a mill? The teeth could be replaced and the metal teeth could cause sparks and start a fire with all that flour flying around.

This mill had a set of mill stones for grinding flour and a set for grinding corn. Since the miller's helper had gone home sick, he asked for volunteers. Cucumber Spraygun was asked to turn the crank which engaged one set of gear with the ones turning the mill wheel on top (the bottom one is fixed). Here he is in action.(#3)

The miller was grinding polenta the afternoon we were there. They used to use Indian corn which is very colorful but some of the kernels grind into black specks...not too good for sales. Now they use plain yellow corn. Here is the set up for milling. The round box contains the stone wheels, the wedged box above holds the grain and there is a chute from it to the opening into the eye of the top stone wheel. From there is goes in between the stones and the grains sort of grind themselves...the stones never touch. (#4)

If you are lucky enough to obtain stone ground polenta, you can make this recipe, but if not, just shorten the cooking time by 3-4 minutes and use regular instant polenta from the store. Either way you can enjoy a grain that is very healthy for you, delicious, and in a dish that you can make ahead.

If you get to Napa County, California, check to see if the Bale Grist Mill is open. If it is, treat yourself to a journey to the past, plus a real-time opportunity to purchase delicious stone ground wheat flour, spelt flour and corn meal as well as this yummy polenta.

Grilled Cheese and Basil Polenta
Adapted from a Donna Hay (#40) recipe as posted on Technicolor Kitchen blog

3 cups (750ml) water
1 cup (170g) stone ground polenta
60g butter, chopped (I only used a tablespoon of butter)
½ cup (50g) finely grated Parmesan
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup basil leaves
2 cups (200g) shredded mozzarella cheese
olive oil, for brushing
ragu or marinara sauce, if desired

Place water in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Gradually whisk in the polenta and cook, stirring, for 5-8 minutes or until thickened and grains are no longer hard. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, Parmesan, salt and pepper. Pour half of the polenta into a 20cm (8 inch) square pan lined with non-stick baking paper (I used foil) and spread to smooth. Top with the basil, mozzarella and remaining polenta. Refrigerate for 45 minutes or until set.

Cut into squares/rectangles and brush with oil. Heat a char-grill pan or barbecue over high heat. (I used my cast iron skillet, well heated.) Cook the polenta for 3-4 minutes each side or until golden and the cheese has melted.

Serve topped with a generous serving of the pasta sauce or a ragu or marinara sauce of your choice.


  1. I don't mind a few black specks in my cornmeal! But, then, I just like cornmeal.

    I always regret that I've NEVER managed to be at there when the miller is milling, and I've been picnicking, wandering, walking and running all over that piece of land. I'm impressed that you plan better than we do!

  2. LOVE that place. I so want my own mill....

  3. Anonymous5:34 AM

    Very interesting! I love the idea of the mill as community center.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  4. Tanita, I had some of the older version when they milled with the specks. I liked it but I can understand the change...those $5 bags of milled grains keep the place going. If you are near here we could go together...I never seem to tire of that mill.

    David, they sell a book in the gift shop that tells you how to do it from A-Z. Trouble is you need a lot of land and a steady source of water, plus to be a business and not a learning center as the Bale mill is, you need to be near where vast quantities of wheat are grown. Nebraska anyone?

    Anon, I guess the other community center in the late 1830s was the largest landowner's rancho, but that was just for occasional parties. Apparently they didn't have the corner store or the post office for a gathering place.

  5. Someday you'll have to explain CS's nickname (privately if necessary).

    The mill sounds very cool. Next time we're out there ...

  6. That first photo just destroyed any inkling I had of trying to eat lighter! I love the photos of your visit to the mill. You cannt beat a good, stone ground polenta. I've been to a grist mill, but they were just grindinng wheat for flour, kinda boring lol Grilled cheese and basil polenta is dinner very soon :)