Every so often, the creek floods and uncovers what’s been hidden for years- even decades. Ancient relics have been hidden away under years of gravel and mud. Hidden from the light of day, and elements of the environment, anything that becomes buried by time will likely last- until the next flood rips away the cover that’s tucked it in the creek’s bed for a century or so.
Last Sunday my Dad woke me up with a synopsis: “I was checking the other side of the bank after the flood and I saw something sticking out of the water… “ That something, it turns out, was a millstone that had been revealed by the recent flood in the past week. No stranger to these weird outlandish precursors to stories, I got out of bed, pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt, and headed down to the dam.
Lo and behold, a circular figure gleamed in the morning air as dad and I stared down at the algae-blanketed stone. I was handed a rock rake and a shovel, and I started digging the millstone out of the gravel. When we could, we threaded and tied a ratchet strap around the center and outer circumference – through the “donut hole” as we call it. Then we started hauling it out with the Kubota (inches at a time), using 2×4 planks as sliders on the side of the bank. From there, we were able to determine its age by the algae and freshwater vegetation growing on the more deeply submerged sides of the millstone.
Since last week, the stone has moved from the other side of the bank to our front lawn. It sits by the wall overlooking the dam, under the maple tree that might even predate the stone itself. Running my hand over the deep and worn lands and furrows of the stone, I have to wonder what history has bypassed the banks of Castle Valley, as the water rolled over this relic of industry for the past century. WWI. The stock market crash. The great depression. WWII. The birth of Rock n’ Roll. The Korean conflict, the Nuclear War scare, Vietnam, the birth of every family member who has and currently resides at Castle Valley. It was there. Frozen in time, sitting, sidelined from the world of daylight and sky, patiently waiting in the cool mud of the creek…
“There was a time when the word from which lady sprang meant a ‘loaf-kneader’. To our own and our families’ distinct profit–and with little effort–we housewives can become ‘ladies’ again” (I. Rombauer, 1962).
I grew up in the era of the bread machine. Throw the ingredients in, push a couple buttons, and leave to come home to a freshly baked box-shaped loaf. Sure, the house smelled wonderful, and the bread was guaranteed to rise and bake perfectly, but I missed out on the hands-on experience and comfort of bread making.
As early as March, the first month of quarantine in Georgia, many people, not just ladies, had turned to bread making to fill their free time. After the run on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, dry yeast quickly disappeared from the store shelves, and Facebook and Instagram filled with pictures of beautiful, brown loaves of bread. Flour was in high demand as millers struggled to make the transition between providing bulk flour for the restaurant industry to providing small packages for the retail industry. Castle Valley Mill was able to adapt quickly to meet the demand. The transition involved long backbreaking days, but my sister and her family took pride in knowing they were providing comfort in a time of unprecedented stress.
After attempts to “reopen” the economy, COVID numbers are climbing, and I am waiting to be handed the “Go Back to Start; Do Not Pass Go” card. I told my sister I might want to try my hand at sourdough starter again, since yeast will be impossible to find. Last year, I managed to keep some gifted starter alive for several months before losing it in the back of the refrigerator. Keeping starter is like keeping another pet. I wasn’t ready for the commitment last year, but now that I have more time and structure in my days, I am ready to be a better dough mama. Last week, I got my sourdough care package from Castle Valley Mill and have begun my venture into raising my sourdough baby from a sterile dough ball into a yeasty living creature that needs to be fed every twelve hours.
In my true academic nature, I hit the books to do some research. It has been a tradition in our family that when a daughter leaves home, she gets the most recent edition of the family cookbook. I inherited my mother’s cookbooks and have three generations of these kitchen bibles. The earliest is my mother’s mother’s The Boston Cooking School, by Fanny Farmer, published in 1935. My mother’s copy is 1959. By 1962, she switched to Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking. Each edition contains entirely new recipes and advice based on the industrialization of flour and bread making. My edition of Joy is 1997, when I graduated college and moved to Miami, much to my mother’s horror (her only knowledge of the city came from Miami Vice). But, in Miami, I was a sous chef at a catering company where I was assigned to make focaccia. It was my first real experience working with flour and yeast.
Based on my literature review, sourdough starter appears to have been a staple in the traditional housewife’s kitchen, whereas now bread making is for people who have the luxury of time and patience. The ’62 edition only mentions starter in the “Know Your Ingredients” section and lacks the step-by-step instructions on growing your own yeast that my ’97 edition includes. “Natural Sourdough Starter” instructions fill most of the page with multiple steps requiring a minimum three days to cultivate. No wonder families kept this stuff alive for generations. Clearly, sourdough is not for the casual bread-maker. If at the end of the second day, it hasn’t formed bubbles yet, it tells me to throw it out, and Go Back to Start; Do Not Pass Go.
The next morning, bubbles started forming in the dough, and by the noon feeding, the dough had risen to the top of the bowl. I moved it to a larger container for its next 24-hour nap. Midway through the day, the dough had tripled. Exciting! But, just how much yeast is in the air in my house?
At noon, I mix the first 1/2 cup bolted hard wheat with 1/4 cup warm water and make my little dough ball. I cover my dough baby and poke holes in the plastic wrap, so it can gather the yeast over the next 12 hours.
At the midnight feeding, it didn’t look much different.
It collapsed! But the book said it should have bubbles and start to smell sour. Another source mentioned it would become runny. As long as it is still “active,” I should just keep going.
Today is the day! It had lots of air bubbles in the morning, but hadn’t risen to where it was before, so I decided to let it sit a little longer. When I got home from my walk along the Chattahoochee, the starter was twice the size and ready to use.
My first attempt at a sourdough boule wasn’t exactly uplifting, but it was edible and very flavorful. I was impatient and needed to give it more time on its second rise. It made hearty dipping bread and French toast bites the next morning. I have much to learn before I pull an Insta-worthy loaf from the oven, but the house will smell heavenly as I pursue this ancient craft.
The ’62 edition of Joy of Cooking asserts, “Nothing gives a household a greater sense of stability and solid comfort than the aroma of cooling bread.” Putting gender role assumptions aside, this statement has proven true in this time of quarantine. As social and political strife mounts, there’s been a return to the importance of home to provide that “sense of stability and solid comfort.” Many of us who are “nonessential employees” have experienced the shift from breadwinner to bread maker to ease our anxiety or at the very least to give us something to do with our hands.
Be sure to follow #castlevalleymillcreations on Instagram to see my progress and get a glimpse at some of the beautiful creations the pros are doing.
It’s been hot – has it not? The summer days are rolling steadily through our little valley, bringing nothing less than the humidity and the heat of a Pennsylvania summer. Here, we say it like this: “August is coming …” July and August are no doubt the hottest you can be here, and by the creek we get humidity to make you feel like you’re under a wet blanket. Needless to say, we – of anyone, understand the woes of cooking and baking during the summer.
Our house is as old as the mill – 300 years for your information. We don’t have an attic, so there’s no way to air condition the place other than one or two window units for the elite of the household. Me. I have an air conditioner. Other than that, the kitchen is blazing hot, so cooking is not an option. I’ll say it up front. This blog is dedicated to those things that you eat cold.
Our berries make fantastic summer salads, our oatmeal is great as a cold cereal, our pasta is fire as a cold pasta salad, and our corn products make some corn pudding you won’t want to see the end of. Some of my fondest memories are from the dinner table.
My mom is an incredible cook, and she lives a lawless life of no recipes. “They’re ~suggestions~ “ she says. Endless arms, hands, and shouting across the table as our family somehow holds 8 conversations among 7 people. A family of 5 and usually 2 friends or so. Everyone eats, everyone loves it.
Table-scapes are my mom’s art medium. Candles, fancy (or not) plates, table runners and salads that look like they came off the cover of Good Housekeeping – but better.
For dessert, we could have fresh corn pudding or tomato-basil on top of mozzarella slices ( my personal favorite). Our products are so much more than bread. Don’t think of bread when you think of us, think of fresh. Think alive. Think family, and think real. Because that is what we are. We are real, we are family, and we make real. Good. Food. And it is good.
Working and living at Castle Valley, you learn to be ever-encroached upon, and encroaching on, nature. In the mill, it’s cave crickets in the basement. Outside, it’s Northern Water Snakes, turtles, Wolf Spiders, and recently, it turns out, a Brown Recluse. The joys certainly balance out the (less joyful) run-ins with things we’d rather leave alone.
Our mill mascot’s name is Eric. Years ago, the son of a family friend would come fishing almost every day during the summer. From boy to man, he grew up spending summers fishing off a little island below the dam. His name was Eric. A few years after Eric grew up and stopped coming so often, we started seeing a Great Blue Heron fishing off the same island. Of course, we named him Eric. We now see “Eric” fishing off the island multiple times a day, in the same patient fashion as his namesake. We’re pretty sure we harbor a lot more than just one Heron – considering the fact that we’ve had Eric for about 8 years now – but as far as we’re concerned, they’re all Eric.
Unless they’re in danger where they are, we let them be. The other ones hang out on the banks of the creek and on muddy slopes along the Lower Meadow. They share their world with their neighbor, who tends to be either in the way or completely absent- there is no in between. Enter, the Northern Water Snake.
At any point in the summer, you can look out the packing room window and see what I like to call a “turtle party”. On the rock that protrudes out from by the dam, literal piles of snapper and leatherback turtles can be seen. Their main term of business: straight hangin’.
Turtles don’t have many natural predators in the Neshaminy Creek, so they thrive within the fresh-water duckweed in the bed of the water. It’s an amphibian oasis. Each spring we find baby snapping turtles, either as a pile of eggs, or freshly hatched out and finding their way to the water.
These guys are a huge part of my childhood. Growing up here, of all places, you have to learn a little coexistence lesson with the wildlife. This includes snakes. Our friends can grow up to 5 feet long, shed wherever they want, and love playing hide and snake in the stacks of our *very nice* wooden pallets.
Around July two or three years ago, we erected “Snake Hotel”. A stack of old and damaged pallets sat by our woodshed, and the snakes took over. Mark then took the opportunity to boost the star rating and added some rocks, more pallets, and changed the location slightly so they would be in a more slither- friendly area, out of the way of the mowing route or high-traffic parts of the lawn.
Snake Hotel stands to this day, and turtle parties are a daily occurrence. Owning, restoring, and operating a 300 year-old mill means accepting the fact that some *residents* have been here much longer than we have. So, rather than plow over the growth of nature in our path, we choose to share it. Snake Hotel keeps our friends out of the well pipes (yes, they actually once clogged the pipes). Turtle parties never fail to put a smile on my face when I peek out the window during the workday. From feathers to shells to scales, nature thrives on and in our creek, and we are elated to share it.
Unless you’re a Brown Recluse, in which case, please follow the tractor treads to the exit.
As all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a resounding effect on the restaurant business and the food industry as a whole. From food shortages, plant closures, and the complete shut-down of public restaurants country-wide, Castle Valley Mill’s future was uncertain. Pre-pandemic, our main business flourished among large-scale distributors, restaurants, and the distilling industry.
When the quarantine began snuffing out businesses, we braced ourselves and prepared for a hard fall both in income and work. We watched as our shipments halted, product was returned, and our millstones silenced because they had no reason to spin.
Then, on day four or five, our online store began to pick up some weird, unexpected forecast. The daily orders went from 3, to 5, to 15.
Roughly a week and a half after our scariest moment, our shipping orders were printing in stack of 150. That’s 150 people ordering our product. Whether this was to make cookies, bread, muffins, grits, oatmeal- real food, for real people, in a very real situation. Stores are terrifying, and shelves are empty anyway. Large mills aren’t fast enough to snap into a retail business model.
Castle Valley Mill had a staff of three: My father, my mother, and me. Before this, I was studying abroad in Berlin. I caught a last-minute ticket out on March 15th. A day later, the U.S went into lockdown. Nearly three months later, we are supplying distilleries for hand sanitizer, distributors for small grocery stores, and individual homes for their dinner plates. We have been pleasantly blind-sided and thrown head-first into being a rock in a storm. Rather, a castle.
Welcome to our blog, and welcome to our castle. Thanks to you, these stones gather no moss. Our doors are open.