Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Saturdays, it turns for the prince. Holland's windmills grind grain again

ON weekdays, the windmill of Peize, in the northern Netherlands, grinds five tons of rye and wheat. But on Saturdays, ``it turns for the prince.'' That means the sails spin not for the purpose of processing grains - but for show. The people of Peize love to see their mill turning, grain or no grain on its millstones.

For more than three decades, the tower stood motionless and deteriorating. It was reduced to a storage barn for cattle fodder.

About these ads

From 1945 to 1970, ``bigger,'' ``faster,'' and ``cheaper'' were bywords in many walks of Dutch life, including the milling and baking businesses.

Hundreds of windmills shut down as bakers flocked to buy electrically milled flour from large factories. By 1970 there were only three operative grain windmills.

But in the mid-1970s, a revival of windmilling swept across the country. ``It came with the counterculture,'' says P. Koning, today's miller in Peize.

``The small-is-beautiful concept, along with the back-to-nature idea, brought windmilling back. People began to long for natural and handmade things.''

Today, of the nearly 1,000 windmills in the Netherlands, 600 are grain mills. Forty of these are now operable, tended by the current total of 50 grain millers.

The Peize mill is in the northern province of Drenthe, a territory the size of Rhode Island and relatively rich in a variety of working windmills - 32 in all.

Some are used to pump water out of reclaimed marshlands. Others provide power needed to squeeze oil from grains. The balance, like the tower in Peize, are grain mills, producing flour for bakers and households in the region.

About these ads

Crowned with a 13th-century Romanesque church, Peize is steeped in tradition.

From the main street, one can see sheep shouldering one another in the wide, open fields beyond the neat rows of red brick houses, with tile roofs and lace curtains.

The village policeman, cheeks red from the open air, makes his rounds by bicycle - unlike his counterparts in bustling Amsterdam, who tool about in Porsche convertibles.

In 1972, the town gained funding from the Ministry of Culture, Recreation, and Social Work to have its windmill restored ``for visual pleasure.''

When Mr. Koning heard of the plan, he pushed officials ``to go beyond external repair and make the mill functional.''

Says Koning, whose father was a baker and whose grandfather was a grain merchant: ``I grew up in the shadow of the Peize mill. Perhaps that's why I like it so and was eager to see it fully renovated.''

Koning was so eager that he promised to become the local miller (in addition to carrying on his 20-year-old career as baker), if the town made its mill usable again. Everyone agreed.

Two years and $40,000 later, the restoration job was complete. Koning was busy tending the mill.

Milling is a very specialized job, traditionally involving a long apprenticeship. But Koning had to learn the trade quickly.

``I had almost no experience,'' he recollects, ``so Mr. Schokker, a retired miller with a half century of experience, taught me.''

Koning readily discovered that milling is no easy task. It involves positioning and repositioning sails that are six stories high to be sure they catch the right amount of wind for the grinding task at hand. An inattentive miller can produce the wrong flour texture if not tending the speed of the sails.

Worse than that, he can cause a fire - the internal workings and gears are made of wood. Too much friction can set them aflame.

In the nearly 1,000 years since windmills became common in Europe, countless towers have turned into infernos - including the original 1831 Peize mill, which had to be rebuilt because of fire in 1900.

According to Koning, it takes not only alert know-how, but patience to be a good miller:

``The wind doesn't blow exactly between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., so our work time is irregular.''

Because he is also a baker, however, at least part of Koning's schedule is predictable: ``Every morning by 3:30, I'm in the bakery.''

During the day he runs back and forth between his bakery and the mill, which sits just behind it.

``Having a double profession makes long days inevitable,'' he says. ``I'm at my work 80 hours a week - fortunately, it is also my hobby.''

On Saturdays, when Koning turns the mill ``for the prince,'' he turns it for many tourists as well. He pays 5,000 guilders (about $1,800) a year to the Peize municipality. It's a condition of renting that he allow sightseers.

Koning mills not only for his own bakery, but for 11 other bakers in Drenthe. Several years ago, they formed the guild of ``True Bakers.'' This was to distinguish themselves from ``Warm Bakers'' (those who make and sell their own bread, but use factory flour) and ordinary ``Bakers'' (those who sell factory-made bread in their shops).

The True Bakers are serious about this bread business. The red-and-white bags that hold their products announce that the enclosed loaf is a true masterpiece. It's born of pure full grain, the windy forces of nature, the restoration of the old Peize mill, the craftsmanship of the Peize miller Koning, and the skill of a True Baker.

Koning and his flour-nosed cronies love to remind customers that even though windmilled flour is harder for bakers to work with than factory flour, the results are worth the effort. ``There is a natural moisture in mill-made breads, because there are no chemicals used in the grinding process. Also, the windmills go slower, so natural oils and sweetness don't get burnt out.''

I have to admit that I've never tasted any bread quite like a True Baker's roggebrood - that's a whole-grain rye so moist that it sticks to your teeth. It's black as peat and so tasty it's hard to believe how healthy it is.

One bite justifies Koning's comment: ``When I'm forced to sell factory-made bread I will close my doors, and that's the end of it.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.