Flour, water, heat - and a grain of hope
One of the disadvantages of being an adult is the need of learning how to delay gratification. Sometimes this ability is needed, sometimes even necessary, but it’s never easy. It’s even less easy when you know you’re holding one of Italy’s best bread loaves, but in order to enjoy it, you have to wait until you get home.
Wait, let’s go back to 2015.
The plan of building the largest landfill in Europe around the village of San Floro in the province of Catanzaro in the region of Calabria in the South of Italy is moving forward. The planners surely didn’t imagine that the villagers, 600 in total, would manage to deal with the huge mechanism behind the plan, but they didn’t take into account Stefano Caccavari. Caccavari, back then a 25 years old student at the business administration faculty of Magna Grecia University in Catanzaro, saw how his village was about to encounter a crisis it might not survive, and together with another 7 villages around it decided to fight the plan. After a year of a joint effort the project was canceled, and on the free land rose Caccavari’s first project – Orto di Famiglia (“Family Garden”), where everyone could rent a piece of land and grow their favorite fruit and vegetables, in season and without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The success pushed Caccavari to start another initiative that combines food, tradition, local produce, and the most important – social action.
Stefano Caccavari (Facebook profile)
Stefano used to drive the wheat his family grew to a mill that stood 100 km from San Floro, and according to his grandmother Concetta was the last traditional mill that used millstones after the other 8 had shut down. But in January 2016 the mill owner told Stefano that it might be one of the last times he could do that, since he decided to sell the stones and mill itself to a Tuscan jewelry maker, who planned to place as an ornament, not more, in its summer house. Since the closest mill after that was very far from San Floro Stefano understood that he wouldn’t be able to keep using this method – and decided to act.
On a post he spread among his Facebook friends and their friends, Stefano asked for a small donation in order to buy the mill’s equipment and continue to operate it. The post circulated around the world and drove 101 people to donate in three months the unimaginable sum of 500 thousand Euros(!). The incredible success made Stefano ask himself why not expanding his dream and build around its grain a whole supply chain fully based on local tradition.
In 2017, a year from that moment Stefano inaugurated his flag project (for now) – Mulinum.
No bread without flour, and no flour without wheat. After studying deeply the subject and finding out that most of the wheat that’s being used in Italy is imported, Stefano decided to grow a forgotten wheat cultivar – Senatore Cappelli. This is the only survivor of 15 durum wheat cultivars that were created by the agronomist and breeder Nazareno Strampelli, who worked at the beginning of the 20th century in service of the marquess Raffaele Cappelli. Cappelli led the agrarian reform that ignited the agriculture-based economy of south Italy, in which the wheat named after him had a major role.
Senatore Cappelli is a derivation of an Algerian wheat cultivar named Jean Retifah and got a lot of success thanks to its durability and the high-quality products made from it. The famine that caused by the Second World War raised the demand for cheap and fast-growing wheat, and Senatore Cappelli had to step aside and give room to other cultivars, at the expense of quality. Today there’s a relatively small variety of products like bread and pasta that are labeled “Senatore Cappelli”, but it’s a common knowledge that these are high-quality ones. A fun fact: most researchers claim that most of the Senatore Cappelli wheat that grows today in Italy comes from the same genetic strain developed/invented by Strampelli a hundred years ago!
If the wheat, some of which grows across the road from Mulinum and can be seen through the millstones out at the entrance, is rooted a century ago, the mill itself travels “a little” earlier. Grinding wheat is more than just turning stones. It’s a craft, it’s a skill, some say it’s an art. In order to do it properly one must have a vast knowledge regarding the type of stones to use, the speed they turn in, and the duration of grinding. Mulinum’s millstones come straight from the beginning of the 19th century and from the quarry around La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, east of Paris, where already in the 16th century was known for its limestone rocks, perfectly fit for the task of wheat grinding. After the First World War, only two companies survived, and the last one dissolved in the middle of the century. Mulinum grinds its wheat using such millstones, that is not too hard to turn the grains into dust – but not too soft to just scratch its surface, turning slowly (relatively) in order to heat it up, and protects its “whole-wheatiness”.
The meticulous work doesn’t stop here, and the baking is done in an olive-tree-fed oven that produces a quite wide range of products for such a small bakery, with its flagship – Brunetto (“U bruniettu” in the local dialect, which means – “Brunette”). A 2017-born 100% Senatore Cappelli sourdough bread that won third place in the all-national category for traditional bread in a contest set by Rome’s Chamber of Commerce. On our first visit to Mulinum, we tasted also 5-grains bread and a loaf spiced with turmeric and almonds, but we had to wait a full 30 minutes until we could slice the Brunetto. Some taps with the other side of the knife – sounds hollow, as it should – the crust is hard and stable, so the knife has some trouble finding a spot, but at the end - the bread agrees:
Together with tomatoes picked yesterday, some olive oil and oregano – what a wonderful way of celebrating a Calabrian tradition!
COVID-19, as any food section of any media channel showed, brought to the max the field of home baking, and it might look like there’s no one who didn’t try even once baking sourdough bread. During the past six harsh months, Mulinum sent its products that include flour, bread, cookies, and all-in-one pizza kits all around Italy for free – and added also a starter from its magical sourdough. Even Gabriele Bonci, one of Rome’s famous pizza makers, was enchanted by the project and uses (at least in part of) Mulinum’s flour in Pizzarium, its renowned pizza lab in the capital.
You can come to Mulinum all year long for Senatore Cappelli workshops, and during summer Mulinum turns its yard to a wide-open pizza garden, without fearing of proximity and COVID-19. The pizza is different from what you might imagine as an ordinary pizza: the dough is very "present" and it seems that it can stand for itself. From the ones that we ordered my favorite was the one who was topped with zucchini shreds and giant zucchini flowers, which was really awesome:
In the background, you can hear the sounds of “Giardino dei Sonagli” (“Garden of Rattles”), an installation of the Israeli-Italian artist Yuval Avital, who gathered dozens of bells and rattles from communities around the Mediterranean. The installation reminds us that the same breath of wind travels in many places, so at the same touch of air, we can find the shades of different cultures:
Of course, someone like Stefano Caccavari cannot sit still, and while inaugurating Mulinum he had already thoughts about the future. Today the association counts more than 220 members, and its main aspiration is to duplicate the Calabrian concept to other regions in Italy – maybe even to other parts of the world. Following a long fight with the famous Italian bureaucracy, today there are already two mills in working progress – in Puglia and Tuscany – that are supposed to start working in 2021. Besides that, after a visit in Sicily Caccavari set up “The Alliance of Mills of the South”, an operating committee that works on coordinating other projects of tradition and solidarity all around the south of Italy.
“Regardless of the flour, bread, pizza or pasta we make,” told me Caccavari, “Mulinum represents something new because 4 years ago we put together 100 people and created a community, which itself is something incredible”, and by saying this he pointed at his hand, “look, I have goosebumps”. “Now, we are at 200-300 members, and this is the real social response. The product – flour, bread, or pizza - comes afterward, but the reason is having created something beautiful together. Together is the word.”
Looking at the fields of wheat, hearing the sounds of bells, smelling, and tasting the Brunetto one thing is clear – the world needs more people like Stefano Caccavri.