Millers – the men who ran grist mills – were a grumpy bunch, so says Bruce and Jack, tour guides at The Dexter Grist Mill in Sandwich, MA, where last week I watched organic corn ground in the three-hundred-year-old machinery, and scooped into a nice cotton bag for me to take home and stir into American polenta.
Housewives two hundred years ago would have been embarrassed to have this coarse, irregular grind on their shelves, but, living in a homogenized, pasturized, uniform century in which things always pour freely and evenly, I’m not alone in welcoming the character-heavy stuff that results when cracking corn between two 700 pound stones turned by a wheel powered by the rushing waters of Shawme Pond, that upstream provides lunch to visiting swans.
A little more history from Bruce and Jack: Millers were grumpy, as mentioned, and women weren’t allowed at mills. The pretty colonial home across the street from the Dexter Grist Mill was the tavern in 1693, the reasonable antidote to the long, hot walk to the Mill, but a culture not welcome to wives and daughters.
The whole thing about grinding corn is that is has to be dry, really, really dry, or else those 700 pound wheels get all stuck with yucky, sticky mushed corn kernels. It’s not like taking apart a Cuisinart, although a 17th century Grist Mill has almost as many moving parts. Imagine a hot September day, those stones turning, all that friction, all that dry corn, and everything starts warming up. The expression “keep your nose to the grindstone” is about paying attention to a spark, or combustible moment, because in one turned nose your grist mill might be nothing more than a memory memorialized in some painter’s landscape. Wood and corn can easily be one big light-able match.
Porous mill stones, by the way, eased the fear of fires in the 18th century, as they helped to dissipate the heat produced during grinding.
Dried corn, sealed in nature’s perfect time capsule, the kernel, can survive free of mold or decay indefinitely – so long as it’s not cracked or damaged. Think of Peruvian mummies curled in their tombs clutching woven bags that hold symbolically precious kernels of corn. Corn has no gluten, so partnered with yeast it’s never chartered any great gastronomical territory. It does best when heat makes it pop or toast.
This local cornmeal – still filled with natural oils, so it needs to be refrigerated or frozen for long-keeping – should be polenta. Fresh, crumbling with corn integrity, this cornmeal – cooked in salted water and stirred occasionally for an hour - rivals anything from a bag in Northern Italy, including the legendary “Polenta Taragna from Northern Italy. If you drive to Sandwich, it’s available at the mill itself, the Hoxie House, and various other town venues. Don’t forget to bring treats for the swans.
August not being a month one thinks about making polenta (historically, the corn is still in the fields; No one’s drying or grinding it yet. The Dexter Mill was grinding last summer’s dried corn – organic – from upstate New York.) So, I prepared a late summer version of polenta: Cooked Dexter Grist Mill cornmeal, roasted figs, a slice of bacon for a savory balance, and a good drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar over all. Some of us added a teaspoon of creme fraiche.
American August Polenta
serves four Ingredients
2 cups of cornmeal
5 cups of water
twelve fresh figs
three tablespoon dark brown sugar
1/2 cup aged balsamic vinegar
four slices bacon
4 basil leaves
creme fraiche, if desired
In a heavy saucepan, bring salted water to a boil. Lower heat, and slowly pour cornmeal into simmering water. Stir with a whisk to break up clumps as well as you can. Cover polenta for the first 30 minutes, removing the lid to stir occasionally. Remove the lid entirely for the last half hour, continuing to stir occasionally. The polenta will thicken and be cooked after an hour, but it will not be a solid mass. Continue cooking and stirring if you prefer a more solid polenta.
Towards the end of the hour, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the stem from the figs, and make a deep X into the top. Divide brown sugar among the figs, pushing it into the X, and drizzle 2 tablespoons of vinegar over them all. Place under a broiler, and cook until brown and bubbly. Divide the polenta among four bowls. Press 3 figs into the polenta in each bowl, and lay a slice of bacon across. Pour the remaining vinegar over each dish. Chiffonade the basil leaves and toss over each dish. Drop a teaspoon of creme fraiche if you like.