Updated: Oct 23, 2020
An almost electrical excitement charged the atmosphere at Old Wye Mill on a recent Saturday, as palpable as the cloud of fine white powder that hung in the air. Yusef Messallam, a young man who had arrived that morning with a car full of heirloom grain, beamed like the father of a newborn. He was not quite passing out cigars but visibly thrilled as the kernels passed through the Mill’s grindstones, climbed the wooden elevator, passed through the bolter, and landed as soft mounds of flour in the bin.
The Mill was a crucial station on Yusef’s quest for nutritious bread. An engineering student at Virginia Polytech had read medical studies, which convinced him that modern bread simply wasn’t healthy to eat. But, he reasoned, humans have been eating wheat bread since the dawn of civilization, so it must be the ingredients that have changed. Yusef embarked on a journey of study and research that brought him back to his native Cairo. He says, bakeries “on every street corner” sell flatbreads that feel filling and sustain life, unlike the commonly available product of industrial manufacture. His research identified the ancient grains Khorasan and emmer, precursors to modern wheat that date back to the earliest agriculture of the Near East, as the most likely to provide the nutritional value he was looking for.
Having located a commercial source for the heirloom grain, Yusef needed to grind it into flour. Still, despite repeated attempts, the high-quality electric mill he purchased from Germany couldn’t achieve the desired results. The millstones kept binding and overheating. Further research told him that larger stones would produce the fine grade of flour he sought on one pass -- so he looked for a working mill which could accommodate this custom order. Last July, on a visit to his mother, Aisha, who lives in Maryland, Yusef stopped by Old Wye Mill on a grinding day, discussing his dilemma with the millers. They assured him they could mill the grain to his satisfaction and set a date for him to return.
On the appointed day, as Yusef and Aisha looked on, the millstones whirred and sang, grinding four 25-pound bags of KAMUT brand Khorasan wheat and a bucket of emmer into fine flour. Because of the extreme hardness of the Khorasan grains, Josh Fradel and Andy House, Old Wye Mill’s skilled millers, subtly adjusted the stones’ height and speed and the volume of grain intake to produce the desired grade of flour, and monitored the process throughout. Soon the grain poured down the chute, and white dust coated the millers and their customers until they looked like human marshmallows. Roslyn Fradel and Rhonda Corder helped scoop the finished flour into double-thick airtight bags for Yusef to take home, where he will bake it into flatbread, combining it with wild yeasts carefully selected to match these flour varieties and spring water with balanced mineral content.
It’s extremely meaningful for Old Wye Mill, the oldest water-powered mill in continuous operation in America, to have supported Yusef’s pilgrimage to recreate the healthy bread of his Egyptian childhood. Now we can’t wait to see – and taste -- the results!