Once upon a time the wheels of some five thousand watermills used to churn up the rivers of Brittany while the wings of three thousand windmills rustled in its salty breezes. One can only imagine the landscape pulsating with the tremendous whispering, humming, whistling, knocking and gurgling that must have resonated all around: today many of the mills are gone (quite a few were destroyed during the world wars) or no longer active.
Built on the banks of the Pont-L’Abbé River in pays bigouden, Moulin de Trémillec is one of the surviving ones. René Bilien, who operates it with his son André, has been a miller since age 15. He was actually born in another mill, near Pont-L’Abbé. His grandpa bought Trémillec in 1932 and operated it with his own son, also called René, the current René’s Dad, now defunct.
The mill dates back to the 1600s. Originally there was only one building, half mill, half living area. Now the miller lives next door. “Our house is new,” says Monsieur Bilien. A plaque above the front door to the adjacent home indicates it was indeed built in 1837, a mere 178 years ago…
In the old days the mill was all one-level. Grandfather Bilien added an upper floor in 1932-1933. The present René Bilien added the attic in 1950.
On the day we visited, André Bilien, the son, was out and about on business and we didn’t see him. Hopefully I’ll get to talk to him when we next visit Brittany (this tour of the mill dates back to our time in Brittany earlier this year): I’d love to hear his take on the future of small-scale milling in the region, something I forgot to ask his Dad about, maybe because I was so taken by his evocation of a not-so-distant past and so captivated by the many remaining signs of its existence.
Moulin de Trémillec produces buckwheat and rye flours. The Biliens don’t buy buckwheat from the local farmers because they lack the proper equipment to dry it. “In the old days everybody had a small buckwheat field. They did the harvest, they spread the grain out in the barn and then they walked through it every day to aerate it.” Farmers’ families no longer do that but buckwheat must still be dried out right after the harvest or it starts germinating and becomes useless. Some buckwheat is still grown locally, essentially for tourists, but the bulk of the buckwheat milled and eaten in Brittany is imported from China, Lithuania or Poland. In the old days they used to blend imported and local. They no longer do because tourists are usually big on terroir and insist on single-origin local buckwheat.
The Biliens sell mostly to bakers as well as to other millers who themselves only mill wheat flour.
I ask Madame Bilien whether she prefers the local buckwheat or the imported one. She doesn’t hesitate: “I like the imported one better. That’s the one we ate in my family and I am used to it.” As for the rye, right now it comes from the Châteauroux area in Central France. The wheat that can be seen growing in the neighboring fields goes to feed the livestock.
Nowadays the mill uses both river power and electricity. It is equipped with a roller mill, a stone mill and a hammer mill. The roller mill is used for buckwheat (it does a very good job of hulling the grain), the stone mill for rye and the hammer mill for animal feed. In the old days they used the old mill stone to mill oat and barley for feed. It took one hour to produce 100 kg. Nowadays it takes 5 minutes.
Monsieur Bilien shows us three different garnitures for sifting the rye flour: from T-85 (with the least germ and bran) to T-170 (with all the germ and bran), the one in-between being T-130…
…and he explains that the stones are dressed once a year (in the old days, it used to be once a week). A stone is now good for three generations of millers as it only looses one-tenth of a millimeter each time it is dressed.
He also explains that the buckwheat is milled in seven separate steps in order to separate the kernel from the hull as gently as possible. He describes the various stages but there is no way I can take notes fast enough to remember each of them. So you’ll have to take my word for it: yes, it is a complex endeavor but it is also beautiful like a choreography lovingly retained through the ages. We taste the flour which tastes a bit like chestnut flour. We buy a couple of bags.
Monsieur Bilien shows us buckwheat hulls, left over from the milling. He sells them to gardeners for use in rose gardens: they are neutral: they don’t add anything to the soil but they don’t harm it either and they are helpful in keeping weeds at bay. Chuckling, he tells us that some tourists insist on whole-grain buckwheat flour, meaning that they want the hulls milled into it. Never mind that all buckwheat flour is wholegrain by definition and that the hull has no taste and no nutritional value! Flour with some ground hull added back actually sells briskly.
Monsieur Bilien also tells us that his dad, who was born in 1902, died in 1974 at age 72: not only was he a smoker but his lungs had been damaged by constant exposure to flour. He himself doesn’t smoke. He is 84 and feels just fine. He says the mill sure keeps him in shape. Handshakes all around and we are on our way, grateful for the warm welcome we received and very much looking forward to our galette dinner.