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The Secret of Everyday Things by  Jean Henri Fabre


 

 

THE GRIST-MILL

[257]

T
HE supply of flour in the house was getting low. Accordingly a trip to the mill was undertaken. The donkey bore a sack of wheat across his back, and as he made his way along with short steps the patient animal cropped here and there from the hedges a mouthful of thistle blossoms, a rare dainty to his palate. The children ran this way and that, picking wild flowers or chasing butterflies, and returning now and then to Uncle Paul with some treasure from Mother Nature's store to exhibit to him.

Before long the sound of falling water and the tick-tack  of the mill, from its half-concealment amid the foliage of willows and poplars, fell on the ear. Ducks were returning in single file from their bath, some of them as white as snow, with feet and beak orange-yellow, others with head of bright green, wings emblazoned with a splendid blue spot in the middle, and tail surmounted by a little curled feather. Ducklings were picking up, here and there, with noisy demonstrations, some scattered grains of wheat along the way. Startled by the approach of the donkey, a flock of geese extended their necks and uttered a raucous cry of trumpet-like resonance, to which the donkey replied after his fashion. And so the journey's end was reached.

[258] After settling certain business details with the miller, Uncle Paul proceeded to show his young charges over the mill and explain its working.

"The water from the stream," said he, "is stored up in a large reservoir by means of a dam, and is let out by opening a sluice-gate. Through this gate it rushes with great force and strikes against the floats of a water-wheel set directly in its path, causing the wheel to turn amid a shower of spray and foam, and thus setting in motion the machinery of the mill.

"To grind the grain and reduce it to flour there are two large millstones, very hard and arranged one over the other, their flat surfaces very near together but not touching. These surfaces are rough, the better to seize and grind the grain between the two disks, the lower one of which is motionless, while the upper revolves rapidly under the impulse of the waterwheel. Both are enclosed in a round wooden case which keeps the flour from scattering. The upper stone has a hole in the middle, through which, little by little, falls the wheat contained in a sort of large wooden funnel called the hopper. Into this the miller empties the grain-sack. As fast as it comes between the two millstones the grain is caught by the irregularities in the surface of the revolving stone and crushed against those in the stationary one. The resulting powder, the coarse flour, is driven by centrifugal force to the edges of the millstones, and finally escapes in a continual stream through an opening in the front of the wooden case.

"But on thus issuing from between the millstones the flour is not yet ready for making into fine white [259] bread; the bran from the husk of the grain must first be removed. This is done by means of a sieve made of silk, which receives the course meal, lets the fine flour pass through its meshes, and retains the bran. The mill has now done its part. To it came sacks of wheat which, unground, could not serve as food; from it go sacks of flour to furnish bread for daily use. Water-power, harnessed to the machinery of the mill, accomplishes this important transformation, turning the millstone to grind the grain and revolving the sieve to separate the bran from the flour. The miller's task is confined to watching the wheels as they turn and feeding the hopper with grain.

"What weariness and waste of time if we had not the aid of machinery and were compelled to grind our grain by sheer strength of arm! You must know that in ancient times, for lack of better knowledge, people had to crush their wheat between two stones after first parching it slightly over a fire. The coarse meal thus obtained was boiled in water to a sort of porridge and then eaten without further preparation, as I have explained in one of our former talks."

"And what did they do for bread?" asked Jules.

"Such a thing as bread had never been even dreamt of at that time. Wheat was eaten only in the form of porridge, a sort of thick glue, its insipid taste somewhat relieved by parching the grain a little to begin with, as I have already explained. Later the plan was hit upon of making a dough of flour and water and then baking this on the hot hearthstone, [260] thus producing some very inferior pancakes, as thick as your finger, stodgy and hard, and mixed with ashes and charcoal. These were better than porridge, but far inferior to the poorest bread of today. By repeated trials, however, our ancestors at last succeeded in producing bread like that on our tables at the present time.

"Next they had to devise means for grinding wheat in considerable quantities, but their invention fell far short of our modern grist-mill. A hollowed-out stone was used as a mortar, and into this was fitted an unwieldy pestle which was operated by a bar pushed by wretched slaves, under the compulsion of a cruel driver armed with a rawhide. Thus slowly and painfully were a few handfuls of flour produced in the time taken by one of our grist-mills to grind a barrelful."


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