The Le Langhe area of southern Piedmont famously has more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere else in Italy. This is a land of beautiful high hills clad in a patchwork of cropfields, vineyards, hazelnut groves and woodlands – all meticulously neat and tidy, patiently manicured by many generations of farmers. It’s the land of the white truffle, the land of Barolo. It’s where the Slow Food movement began and still maintains its unofficial HQ – in the little town of Bra. Ask any Italian food expert where to find Italy’s very best dining, and chances are that Le Langhe will come at or near the top of the list. Even the name ‘Le Langhe’ refers to how the region’s foodstuff-growing prowess has shaped the landscape. Depending on which source you follow, ‘langhe’ is a dialect word for ‘tongues’ or ‘strips’, a clear reference to the area’s prettily interlaced streaks of agricultural greenery – layers of fields meeting layers of trees meeting layers of vines.
Several small rivers snake through this hilly paradise, spilling down from the mighty Po or the great lakes further north. Down on the banks of the Belbo River, in the little hamlet of Cossano Belbo, there’s a quiet spot where a mill has stood since 1280, grinding local grain using the push of the river. The mill’s latest incarnation (no longer water-powered) has been run by the Marino family for the past half-century. Supplying several Michelin-starred restaurants in the surrounding hills, as well as buyers from further afield, the Marinos specialize in high-quality organic flours, stone-ground in the traditional way for optimum flavour and nutrition. Grandfather Felice, a true ‘local hero’, bought the mill after distinguishing himself in the Second World War. He was a Partisan fighter who sheltered British paratroopers, and he shyly shows me the grateful ‘Certificate of Patriotism’ given to him by Allied commanders in 1945. He also brings out a huge white bundle of silk – the very parachute British airmen used to drop him guns and ammunition. In an old black-and-white group portrait of beaming Partisans, Felice’s young face is clearly recognizable in the centre.
Life is much calmer for grandfather Felice these days. His middle-aged sons Ferdinando and Flavio plus two wonderfully enthusiastic twenty-something grandsons Fulvio and Fausto conduct much of the day-to-day running of the mill. But Felice still uses his master-skills to piece together new millstones when necessary. It’s real artisan work – hammering together pieces of super-hard volcanic stone from France to form a perfect grinding wheel. When finished, each massive circle will last for decades. Several expired wheels picturesquely dot the mill’s premises, and one has even been embedded into the patio of the on-site farmhouse – a round floor-light fixed into its central hole. The message is clear: this is a home literally and figuratively built on the milling of grain.
Back when the Marino family took over the mill in the 1950s, they ground most of their grain using a cylinder mill – a fast-production method that was then the height of modernity. But with the huge rise in food allergies in the Western world, and the ever-growing interest in organic foods and high-quality production, the family decided to shift their emphasis. Now they specialize in old-style, locally-grown organic cereals and in ancient, unusual grains packed with nutrients. Crucially, they use the old-fashioned stone-grinding technique, which means they don’t have to heat the grain before milling it, and this helps the flour retain a more intense aroma and flavour. Certainly the air is intoxicatingly fragrant when you walk into one of the milling rooms! Stone-grinding also makes the flours more nourishing, of course, with more of the grain’s natural germ and raw fibres retained.
I’m taken into a rustic room atmospherically hung with old farming implements to watch two of the mills in action. The carefully-crafted stones sit inside old-fashioned wooden housings, each with a powdery window giving a view of tumbling flour. Atop each little mill, an open container holds the slowly vanishing grain, and beside it sits a quaint brass handbell, cleverly rigged to ring when all the grain has run out and so summon the miller to pour in more. Fulvio tells me this little innovation was installed after his grandfather fell asleep one evening in the warm, cereal-smelling room. Who could blame him? It’s an irresistibly cosy place and those white sacks of flour look decidedly pillow-shaped. Delicious dreams of bread and cakes would be guaranteed.
The Marinos maintain three stone-grinding mills – one for grinding polenta maize, another for grinding soft and durum wheat, and a third for grinding more exotic and neglected foodstuffs such as spelt, rye, buckwheat, barley, chestnuts, monococco and kamut (more on these last two in a moment). The maize they use is the esteemed ‘8 Row’ variety – grown to perfection only in Le Langhe. So named because each plant produces just one cob with eight rows of kernels (giving a far lower yield than conventional maize), 8-row maize is intensely yellow and makes a distinctly sweeter and smoother polenta than other maizes. Anyone who has only ever been disappointed by bland slabs of tasteless polenta really should try polenta from Le Langhe before giving up on this dish. It was a real eye-opener for me, far more succulent and flavoursome than any polenta I’d had before.
The less common grains and foodstuffs ground by the Marinos in their third mill certainly aren’t just for people with food intolerances. Most people don’t eat enough of these unusual foodstuffs, the Marinos say, and the top-quality restaurants they supply with these things agree. I had some wonderful buckwheat pasta and spelt biscuits in a nearby Michelin-starred eatery. The Marinos grind rye (both white and wholemeal – good for bread, pasta and biscuits), buckwheat (good for pasta and buckwheat polenta), rice flour (good for cakes), and spelt (good for just about everything). They also grind excellent local chestnuts, providing flour for castagnaccio – a rich Tuscan chestnut cake typically filled with walnuts, pine nuts and raisins. They grind chickpeas too, making flour for dishes traditional in Liguria just a few miles away – farinata, a thin, crisp chickpea pancake or flatbread baked in the oven and topped with rosemary or onions and sausage; and panissa, thicker chunks of chickpea paste to be sliced and pan-fried.
Perhaps most interesting are the two very ancient and highly nutritious grains that regularly pass through the Marinos’ special third mill: monococco and kamut. Sometimes described as ‘the one true organic cereal’ because it has remained almost wholly unaltered and unhybridized for so many millennia, monococco grew wild at least 12,000 years ago in Mesopotamia or the fertile lands in and around modern Turkey and Iran. The grain has links with the beginning of human civilization itself, its consumption linked to the end of our species’ nomadic wanderings as hunter-gatherers and the start of our settled life as agriculturalists. By eating grain as well as meat, and by establishing farming-based settlements rather than being forever on the move, early humans were able to vastly increase their numbers and begin the slow, inexorable rise towards global domination (a mixed blessing, perhaps!). Among the very first grains that mankind ate and domesticated, monococco really was a grain that changed the world. Yellow-gold when ground into flour, monococco is startlingly nutritious. Nearly a quarter of it is protein, and it’s also very rich in antioxidant cartenoids (the anti-ageing, anti-cancer substances that make saffron yellow and carrots orange).
Certainly venerable, but perhaps not quite as ancient or unaltered over time as monococco, kamut is an ancestor of durum wheat, but has far higher nutritional properties than its cultivated offspring. ‘Kamut’ is actually a long-established brand name for the grain; strictly speaking, its official monicker is the rather clinical ‘QK-77’. To add to the confusion, the Marino family market their kamut flour under the name ‘enkir’. But as they are the only people in all of northern Italy who mill it, it seems fair that they should be allowed to call it whatever they like! Twice as big as common wheat, kamut has much more protein, more lipids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. It has a slightly sweet, buttery flavour and is very easily digested. Many people who are allergic to normal wheat bread find they have no problem eating kamut. Handily, both monococco and kamut can be used just like ordinary flour to make bread, pasta, cakes and so on.
Of course, no self-respecting mill would fail to grind wheatflour, and the Marinos wheat-mill produces five different flours for all the cakes, pastries, breads and pastas any heart could desire. Alongside the more nutritious wholemeal or unrefined flours, there are also the superfine type ‘0’ and ‘00’ flours for pasta-making and so on. Grandson Fulvio shows me the five-foot-long rotating sieve they use to carefully refine these flours. He opens a side panel and a fragrant white powder fills the air, puffed out through a fine mesh by the falling flour. The delicious smell is the last straw for both of us, and we re-join the rest of the family for homemade cakes and coffee.
We gather at a round table on the farmhouse patio. Beside the front door, two child-sized handprints are embedded in the plastered wall – a touching record of pre-teen Fulvio and Fausto. Now they’re hard-working colleagues and heirs to this fine family business. Father Ferdinando brings out the cakes, melt-in-the-mouth delicious. Meanwhile grandfather Felice sits to one side, affably surveying the scene. The old framed photograph of him and his Partisan chums sits forgotten on a chair behind him, together with the ‘Certificate of Patriotism’. He has put away his fighting days and is free to think only of his family. And of his guests. Wiping his floury hands on his jumper, he gets up and very kindly pours me more coffee.
©Fleur Kinson 2007