Since Red Hen opened 18 years ago, we haven’t had a compelling reason to mill our own flour. Although my limited experiences with milling have proven enticing, the two farmers that we buy most of our flour from each have mills of their own and their business models are designed around adding value to their wheat by milling it themselves. Ben Gleason arrives every ten days with his pickup truck loaded down with 3000 lbs of freshly milled stone ground flour . Every Thursday, a semi brings four to five tons of flour that is milled on the farm by Moulin des Cedres, just west of Montreal. Although we are curious about milling, we have relied on our farmers or other partners for milling.
Last summer, Todd Hardie showed up at the bakery with a sample of rye berries that he had harvested on his newly established farm in Greensboro, about an hour north of the bakery. Not having a way of transforming this grain into flour, I contacted my friend and rye specialist James MacGuire, of Montreal. James was in the midst of doing extensive research on rye and he was excited to try this Vermont sample. He milled it on his small home mill and was delighted with the bread that he baked with it. In fact, James was so impressed with the quality of Todd’s rye that he arranged a visit to Todd’s farm and included a photo of the grain in the field in an article he wrote on rye for The Art of Eating.
Todd’s operation is still a new venture and he was hopeful that Red Hen might sign up to purchase his rye. But if we couldn’t produce flour from his grain, we couldn’t make bread from it. Finally, I had an excuse to get a mill!
That’s where the story becomes really unexpected and fun. Although I am well aware of the great work of our friend Andrew Heyn of New American Stone Mills, just north of us in Elmore, Andrew’s smallest mills are much larger and more expensive than we could justify for this experiment. Where could we find an appropriately sized stone mill that would allow us to dip our toes into the water of this craft that is at the root of bread baking? As it happened, the answer came to me via one of my other great passions: cycling.
One Saturday afternoon last June, I was driving home from the farmers’ market when my eye caught a tandem bicycle on display at a yard sale. I spun around immediately to inspect. I recognized right away that this was a unique handmade bicycle. In fact, many of the details on this machine had me thinking that it had to be the work of Roger Jansen, who lived in central Vermont for a few years in the early 1970’s. I have a cycling friend who owns one of Roger’s bikes and I had also seen his work pictured at http://www.classicrendezvous.com/USA/Jansen_RogerT.htm
In one of the many bread and bicycle connections I have made over the years, I had previously met Roger at The Kneading Conference in Maine. He was there doing a workshop on, of all things, dressing mill stones. We enjoyed talking about bikes, bread and milling. It turns out that after Roger left Vermont in the late ‘70’s, he landed in North Carolina, where he found work with Meadows Mills. Meadows is well-known as one of the few remaining U.S manufacturers of stone mills. I know many millers, including Ben Gleason, who use Meadows mills.
After leaving Meadows in 1982, Roger started designing and building small stone mills with his two sons Larry and Tass, who live in California and North Carolina, respectively.
It was with all this in mind that I snatched up that tandem yard sale find last summer– just a few weeks after Todd had visited the bakery with his sample of rye. So now I had two reasons to reconnect with Roger. It wasn’t hard to get his contact from Jennifer Lapidus, the founder and proprietor of Carolina Ground. Jennifer is another cyclist/miller and has known Roger for many years. She told me of how she and Roger and Larry toured VT years ago by bicycle. These days, she sees Roger and Tass regularly when they visit Carolina Ground to tune up her millstones.
Roger, now an octogenarian, splits his time between Larry’s in California and Tass’ in North Carolina. Although he was not able to shed any light on the origin of my yard sale bike (he never built a tandem), he was excited to tell me that he and Tass were putting the finishing touches on a mill with 16” stones that would be perfect for our needs. He sent me a sample of flour that he produced on one of his mills, and that was enough for me to commit with enthusiasm.
Ordinarily, purchasing a piece of equipment means sending a check and arranging shipping. Not for Jansen Grist Mills. Buying a stone mill from Tass and Roger, meant making a trip to North Carolina to spend a day learning how to dress the mill’s stones. Not only are Roger and Tass committed to revitalizing the craft of stone milling, they believe in empowering aspiring millers to maintain their stones. I know many owners of stone mills who are dependent on the dwindling number of people that know how to dress stones. It can be hard to find someone to do this promptly when you need it done. So the fact that our new mill came complete with a lesson in this craft was of great significance. And it presented the opportunity for a great road trip!
Liza’s brother David Cain, proprietor of Waxwing Bag Co and fellow cycling enthusiast, had taken an interest in the bicycle side of this story from the beginning. As a crafter of fine bicycle bags, David is in the thick of the current resurgence of interest in the rich tradition of French bicycles that was in its heyday in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. It took about 50 years for a significant number of people on these shores to appreciate the French bike builders, but Roger Jansen was enamored with the classic French style four decades before almost anyone else in the U.S. had even heard of any of the great French master “constructeurs,” as they were called. In the manner of these craftsmen, Jansen built not only bike frames, but he also assembled them into a cohesive machine complete with lights, fenders, custom built racks, and often bags that he himself sewed on a treadle machine. David had begun a correspondence with Roger’s California-based son Larry soon after my yard sale find. Larry had fond memories of cycling in Central Vermont as a boy and sent David an old article from our local Times Argus profiling Roger and his work.
Roger and Tass were excited for David to join me on the trip to get the mill so that he could meet Roger and hear stories of this pioneer of American bicycle building. It took several months before I could find time in my schedule, but David and I finally made our way to the hills of Hiddenite, NC in January, 2018. We didn’t need Google to tell us that we were approaching a millwright’s workshop– the sign pointing to Wilkesboro (home of Meadows Mills) and, minutes later, a local grist mill with a crowd of farmers gathered around the door were clear signs of this area’s ongoing milling heritage. In an unassuming building behind Tass’ family’s house, we met the father and son team, our new mill, and a treasure trove of vintage, handmade French bicycles, parts and accessories.
Tass spent the next eight hours coaching me on the craft of “training” and sharpening the granite mill stones while Roger took Dave on a tour of his past life as a bike builder in Vermont.
Jansen Grist Mills is a sideline for Tass and Larry. Tass has a full-time job with the North Carolina prison system supervising the production wood shop. Larry has a small bakery in Chico, CA with a wood-fired oven. Roger spends time with both his sons and advises them on the mill building. Each of the mills represents a little bit of refinement in their design and no two are exactly alike. From the beginning, I had expressed to Roger that I was interested in producing the finest granulation of flour that I could. I learned how to work the millstones in such a way that we would achieve that. After six hours of work, when Tass and Roger proclaimed the stones to be precisely dressed, we put the mill back together and milled a test batch. When the flour began to come off our new mill, it’s hard to say if Tass or I was more excited about the results. In fact they started joking about the fact that I hadn’t actually paid for the mill yet and they might just want to keep it!
Our new mill made it back safely to its home in Middlesex. We have already begun to stone mill the Wapsie Valley heirloom corn that we use in our Mad River Grain.
Todd Hardie will soon deliver 300 lbs of rye for us to work with. We expect that in the coming weeks, Todd’s grain will appear in varying percentages in all of the breads that we make that contain rye. The excitement that was generated here in the bakery when fresh ground cornmeal started flowing from the mill has me thinking that our new tool will inspire some new breads. And Jeremy is already talking about working some freshly milled grain into his pastries. Stay tuned to the new horizons that this will lead us to!
After having to take a brief pause to keep everyone safe, we are getting back to baking. Beginning on Tuesday, January 26th., you will find our bread in stores again.
On this first day back, you won’t see baguettes, but you will find five varieties on the shelves. Over the next four days, our selection will be increasing. By the end of the week, we expect to be back to full baking capacity. Our goal is to open the cafe on Thursday. More updates to follow...
Thank you to everyone for the support over the last few days. You mean the world to us!