This past summer, my husband and I visited Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park, located three miles north of St. Helena in California's Napa Valley. Since I brought my single bag of stone-ground polenta meal home, I've been looking for a recipe that represented Northern California's Mexican-Italian heritage.
The park, located at 3369 N. St. Helena Hwy. (Highway 29), has a functioning water-powered grist mill, providing local, organically grown stone-ground wheat, spelt, buckwheat and pastry flour, cornmeal and polenta to local businesses. Sacks are also "sold" on site to visitors for donations starting at $5.
My husband bought a bag of buckwheat flour for his father, hoping he'd get some buckwheat pancakes out of the deal. He's still waiting.
Although the bags are marked "Not for Human Consumption," all the flours and meals ground there are safe to eat.
The bags carry the warning not because of the milling process or the raw materials. Current California building and health department codes require any establishment making foodstuffs to have nonpourous floors and stainless-steel appliances, which are impractical to impossible to install in a historical grist mill with wood floors, stone mills and iron gears.
The mill is powered by a 36-foot-diameter water wheel. When English surgeon E.T. Bale built the mill in 1846, he had water from a creek channeled to the mill, later storing creek water in a reservoir for consistent operation.
Nowadays, the water is recycled. The chute supplying the wheel ends just beyond the right side of the photo above. Water is pumped from a pool below the wheel back up to the chute.
Bale died in 1848 and didn't live long enough to see the mill become a commerically viable enterprise. His widow, Maria Bale, niece of famous California founder Gen. Mariano Vallejo, single-handedly brought the mill from bankruptcy. She eventually became one of the wealthiest landowners in Napa Valley. The mill operated until 1905, when it was shut down.
Restoration began in the late 1980s and was completed just this past August. It was open for public tours daily, but now is open only Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. due to state government budget cuts. The park's location along one of Napa Valley's busiest wine tourism thoroughfares makes it a convenient detour to discover a long-cherished aspect of Northern California's food culture.
Local restaurants, breweries and culinary schools order custom-ground flours and meals from Bale Grist Mill. A miller-ranger told our tour group that outside work probably saved the mill from total closure.
The Mexican heritage of the mill and California as well as the role of spiciness in Korean cooking inspired me to blend Spanish chilis with Italy's polenta cornmeal in a Koreafornian dish.
Asiago Serrano PolentaInspired by PromiseMe2's Creamy Corn, Asiago Cheese and Serrano Pepper Polenta
Ingredients11/2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and smashed
2 medium-sized Serrano peppers, chopped
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
1 cup half and half
2 fresh thyme sprigs
11/2 cups polenta (yellow loose cornmeal)
1/2 cup fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1/2 cup Asiago cheese, grated
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Melt butter and olive oil together on medium-high heat.
- Add chopped garlic and Serrano peppers.
- Once garlic and peppers are golden-brown, add stock and simmer for a couple of minutes
- Add milk, cream and half and half, along with thyme.
- Gradually pour in the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly.
- Once the milk is completely absorbed, lower the heat and set a timer for 20 minutes.
- Continue cooking, whisking often, until the timer goes off. Add chicken stock if the mixture is too thick. (It should have the consistency of creamy mashed potatoes.)
- Once the timer chimes, the polenta should be thick and smooth. Finish with butter, grated Parmigiano along with salt and pepper.
- Pull out the thyme sprigs before serving.