ST. HELENA In wine country, everything old cycles back again.
Just as ancient vines produce coveted cabernet and heirloom tomatoes top dinner menus, a 167-year-old grist mill is attracting new fans among Napa Valley chefs and bakers.
Located in a state historic park, the Bale Grist Mill still makes flour the old-fashioned way: by stone.
As a demonstration of living history, the mill operates only on weekends. But its menu of gourmet grains makes it a must-stop for local foodies as well as weekend wine tasters who drop by the mill's gift shop to grab 2-pound bags of favorite flours.
"It's the best-kept secret in Napa," said Tyffani Peters, who works at the nearby Culinary Institute of America. "Their prices are very reasonable, too."
On the California State Parks list of possible closures in the face of budget cuts, this landmark almost was shuttered. But a volunteer partnership came to its rescue.
Along with nearby Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, the Bale Grist Mill is operated in part in cooperation with the nonprofit Napa Valley State Parks Association and Napa County's parks district.
"We get travelers from all over the world," said Jeanne Marioni, who serves as events coordinator for the Napa Valley parks. "But we also get local foodies who drop by to get four bags of polenta."
In the mid-1800s, the Bale Grist Mill was the hub of Napa Valley social life, as wheat not wine dominated local crops.
Three miles north of St. Helena, the landmark once again will be the site of a large gathering for a fundraising candlelight dinner Sept. 7. Chef Bernardo Ayala, of Napa Valley Bistro and the Culinary Institute of America, will serve a menu of local sustainable food including the mill's polenta.
Opened in 1846, the mill has been extensively restored over the past 30 years.
"The inner workings look like a gigantic clock," Marioni said. "It's fun to watch."
At full speed, the grooved stone wheels can process 700 to 800 pounds of grain an hour, said volunteer miller Rob Grassi.
"There's a scissor action between the stones," he said. "That cuts up the grain. Even the Greeks and Romans carved patterns into the stone (for milling). They realized very early on that this was a very efficient method."
Whole wheat and rye flours bear the distinctive cut of heavy grindstones, slowly turned by a 36-foot waterwheel.
"There's something very different in the way it tastes and feels," Marioni said. "People can taste the difference with stone-milled."
Likewise, the cornmeal and polenta have an extra lightness that makes for a fluffy and flavorful final product.
"Our polenta is especially delicious because it's so incredibly fresh," Marioni said. "When milled by stone, the grains aren't the same size. They're not heated and it's full of life. There's a variance of texture; the smaller grind lends to its creaminess, the bigger bits give it texture."
Marioni serves polenta family-style, heaped onto a big plate and surrounded by vegetables.
"But it's so versatile, you can eat polenta for breakfast with maple syrup," she added.
Heated by a wood-burning cast-iron stove, the mill's historic granary doubles as a gift shop, which offers the flours for sale. Cornbread samples, baked fresh in the century-old oven, tempt customers.
"As old-timers put it," the shop boasts of the mill's cornmeal, "when meal comes to you that way, like the heated underside of a settin' hen, it bakes bread that makes city bread taste like cardboard."
Growing interest in gluten-free and alternative flours has helped spur popularity in the mill's gourmet grains. In particular, spelt and buckwheat are attracting new fans.
"Spelt is fascinating," Marioni said. "It's seeing quite a resurgence. It's highly nutritional with eight amino acids but (almost) no gluten."
Likewise, buckwheat which isn't wheat or grain adds sweet, nutty flavor to baked goods, with no gluten.
These products also are as locally sourced as possible. For example, the organic field corn comes from the Sacramento Valley.
"I use our bread flour," Marioni said of the whole wheat. "It's incredibly delicious. Hard wheat is best for making bread, while soft winter wheat makes wonderful pastry flour."
These flours are stone-milled, not ground, Marioni added.
"There's a big difference between milling and grinding," she explained. "In grinding, you're smashing the grains. That's what you do with a mortar and pestle. (Stone-ground meal or flour) is what you would use for tamales or flatbread.
"Milling actually sheers the grain. That technique gives you wonderful flours. We're milling, not grinding."
BALE GRIST MILL STATE HISTORIC PARK
Where: 3369 St. Helena Highway North (Highway 29), St. Helena, about three miles north of downtown St. Helena.
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, year round
Admission: $5; children ages 6-17, $2; children under age 6 admitted free.
Details: www.napavalleystateparks.org, (707) 942-4575
Also: School tours are available on Tuesdays for $50 per class.
Bale Grist Mill Harvest Dinner, 5:30 p.m. Sept. 7: Chef Bernardo Ayala of the Napa Valley Bistro and the Culinary Institute of America will prepare a candlelight dinner, served next to the historic water wheel. Tickets are $100, and are available at brownpapertickets.com (event #424377) or by calling (707) 538-1647.
Old Mill Days, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 5-6: Take part in a pioneer harvest and family cele- bration with mill tours, spinning, weaving, corn-husk doll making, calligraphy, woodworking and more. Admission: $5; children under 6 admitted free.
What's in a grain?
Using organic grains, corn and buckwheat, Napa Valley's historic Bale Grist Mill still stone-mills flours, which are available to the public on weekends. Most flours are priced at $5 for a 2-pound bag. Here's a snapshot of what's typically available:
Whole-wheat bread flour: High in gluten and excellent for bread, hard red wheat is used for this flour. The wheat was grown in California, Washington, Utah and Colorado.
Whole-wheat pastry flour: Pastry flour milled from soft white wheat grown in Idaho and Washington is softer and more finely textured than other whole-wheat flours. Use it for quick breads, muffins, pancakes and cookies.
Buckwheat: Despite its name, buckwheat is not wheat nor grain. This nutrient-dense flour comes from the seeds of a pretty flowering plant (it grows wild in California) and contains no gluten. Without gluten, it won't rise by itself, but adding up to 50 percent buckwheat flour to wheat flours adds nutrition, flavor and texture to breads and other baked goods. Buckwheat is great for pancakes.
Cornmeal: The mill uses organic yellow dent corn grown in the northern Sacramento Valley and certified non-GMO. This cornmeal is excellent for cornbread, muffins, corncakes and other favorites.
Polenta: Sought after by Napa Valley chefs, this Italian variation of cornmeal is coarsely milled, using the same Sacramento Valley yellow dent corn.
Spelt: An ancient grain, this is a distant cousin of wheat but is very low in gluten and easier to digest. Nuttier and slightly sweeter than whole wheat, spelt flour makes good quick bread and pancakes. This grain was grown in Washington.
Rye: A hardy grain with a distinctive flavor, rye usually is mixed with wheat flours for bread. This grain was grown in Montana and North Dakota.
Simple spelt pancakes
Makes 12 to 16 pancakes, depending on size
Recipe courtesy of King Arthur Flour Co.
2 cups whole spelt flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla (optional)
In a medium bowl, whisk together the spelt flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
Combine the milk and melted butter, and the vanilla.
Form a well in the center of the dry ingredients, and pour the wet ingredients into the dry. Stir the batter just until the dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened. It will seem very wet, but will thicken as it sits. Let the batter sit for 15 minutes before you use it.
Heat a nonstick griddle or heavy skillet, preferably cast iron. If the surface is not nonstick, brush it lightly with vegetable oil.
When the pan surface is hot enough that a drop of water sputters across the surface, give the pan a quick swipe with a paper towel to eliminate excess oil, and spoon the batter onto the hot surface, 1/4-cupful at a time.
Let the pancakes cook on the first side until bubbles begin to form around the edges of the cakes, about 2 to 3 minutes. You may need to adjust your heat to get the pancakes to cook through without scorching the surface.
When the cakes are just beginning to set, flip them and let them finish cooking on the second side, about 1 minute more, until they're golden brown on both sides.
Serve immediately with butter and syrup.
Prep time: 1 hour, including rest time
Cook time: 20 minutes
Makes 12 to 16 pretzels
Recipe courtesy of Birkett Mills.
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup buckwheat flour (light or whole)
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup milk
1 egg white
Slightly beaten sesame seeds, poppy seeds and/or coarse salt
In large bowl, mix together the two flours and salt. Add eggs and milk; blend to form a medium soft dough.
Knead dough on a floured board for a few minutes. Place dough into a sealed container or zipper-top plastic bag; let rest for about 20 minutes.
Cut dough into 12 or 16 pieces, depending upon pretzel size you prefer. Roll each piece into a rope and twist into desired shape. Place pretzels on a lightly oiled baking sheet; brush with egg white. Sprinkle with salt, sesame or poppy seeds.
Bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm.
Buckwheat almond cake
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Recipe courtesy of Birkett Mills.
1 1/2 cups skin-on sliced almonds
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar divided
4 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup light buckwheat flour
1/2 cup raspberry preserves
One 10-inch round paper lace doily
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar
Oil bottom of a 9-by- 1 1/2-inch round cake pan and line with waxed paper. Finely grind almonds in food processor, blender or nut-chopper.
In large bowl, cream butter and 6 tablespoons sugar. Beat in yolks, one at a time. Stir in vanilla and almonds.
In medium bowl, beat egg whites and salt to soft peaks; gradually add remaining sugar, beating until soft, glossy peaks form. Lightly fold one-quarter of beaten egg whites into batter. Sift 2 tablespoons flour over batter; combine lightly. Alternately add remaining whites and flour in this manner.
Pour batter into pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until tester inserted into center comes out clean. Cool on rack 10 minutes; remove from pan.
When cool, slice horizontally into 2 layers. Place bottom layer, cut-side up, on plate; spread with preserves. Top with remaining layer, cut-side down. Place doily on top; sprinkle with confectioners' sugar; remove doily.
Ancient grain polenta
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 8 minutes
Recipe courtesy of chef Michael Chiarello, Bottega Ristorante, Yountville.
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch ground white pepper
5 tablespoons polenta
5 tablespoons semolina
1/4 cup fontina cheese, grated
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Combine the stock and cream in a heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper.
Whisk in the polenta and semolina; cook over very low heat, whisking regularly, until the grains are soft; about 8 minutes. Whisk in the cheeses.
To encourage the polenta to come cleanly out of the pan, put the pan over medium heat. Run a spatula or wooden spoon around the sides of the pan to clean off the polenta. Do not stir. Wait until a large bubble begins to form and push the polenta upward. Pour polenta immediately into a warm dish. Serve immediately.
Note: If firm polenta is desired, increase the amounts of polenta and semolina to 1/2 cup each for a total of 1 cup dry to 3 cups liquid.
Polenta for later: Pour cooked polenta into a parchment-lined baking sheet and spread into an even 1/2-inch thick layer. Let cool. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight.
Cut into thick fingers or triangles. To reheat, sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and place in a preheated 500-degree oven until lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Or fry in butter and oil until lightly browned.
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.