Photo by Anthony Tieuli
Every business has its special sauce--a closely guarded ingredient or technique, known neither by its competitors nor its customers, shrouded in secrecy. And just as KFC zealously conceals the 11 secret herbs and spices in their seasoning blend, Mexico's molineros, or stone mill operators, have something they're not telling you.
For centuries, molineros have hidden from prying eyes the unique patterns that they chisel or "dress" into their millstones. The methods for dressing stone were traditionally passed from father to son (molineros are almost always men). Molineros use many different dressings, depending upon the item being ground.
Rice is ground in one mill, corn in another, cocoa in yet another, and the stones in each mill sport a markedly different pattern. The dressing has a profound effect on the finished texture of the product, so much so that customers might visit one molinero for their cocoa, and another for their flour.
In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, there are still hundreds of molineros eking out a living. Operating up to a dozen molinos ("mills") in a given storefront, they are tasked with grinding the staples of everyday Mexican cuisine: corn for masa harina, chilies for mole, and cocoa for taza de chocolate. Frequent use will wear down the millstones over time, and so they must be redressed often. A dull stone will mash or tear instead of grind, negatively affecting the end product.
When it's time to apply a new dressing, the molinero will remove the stones from the mill and retreat behind closed doors or out of sight to do his work. Since the dressing significantly impacts the quality of the end product, it's regarded as a trade secret. At Taza Chocolate, we use the same molinos to grind the cacao for our chocolate as are used by the molineros of Oaxaca. Like our Mexican counterparts, we must also occasionally dismantle our mills to redress the stones.
Unfortunately, my father was not a mill operator and did not pass down the patterns and techniques I needed to dress the stones for our mills at Taza. Lacking the requisite upbringing of a true molinero, I did the next best thing--I went to the library. After reading through several volumes on the history of Oaxaca, the culture of milling food, and the science of stone mills, I felt hardly more prepared. Given the secrecy of many of the practices, the literature is unsurprisingly sparse.
Photo by Alex Whitmore
I knew the only real way to learn was to convince a molinero to allow me to apprentice. This is rarely permitted, and even more rare for a non-Mexican like myself. It took weeks of travel around Oaxaca, befriending dozens of molineros, pleading with them to share just a few of their secrets. I finally convinced a miller named Carlos to show me the ropes. He offered the basics only, explaining that I'd need to learn the rest on my own. He was skeptical...I was enormously grateful.
Even the vague description of the process below is likely a betrayal of the miller's code. Don't tell Carlos.
Beginning with new stones, the surface is flat and the initial pattern must be designed and inscribed onto the surface. This unique flower pattern is known as a flor, and is usually cut into a pair of stones (two stones are used in each mill) with a handheld grinder. After the course cuts are made and the flor is laid out, the furrows, or grooves, are dressed into the stone using a hammer and chisel. The depth, angle, and grade of each furrow will affect the throughput and refining ability of the mill. These must be optimized for the particular product that the stones are destined to mill--in our case, Taza Chocolate.
As the stones are used, the chocolate flowing through them will wear them down and eventually they will need to be re-sharpened. We redress the stones every 14 weeks or so here at Taza, depending on the volume of chocolate being moved through the mills. Redressing an existing stone is different from crafting one anew. The flor is already there, but great care must be taken in replicating the initial furrows so that consistency in the final chocolate can be maintained. The whole process takes on a zen-like meditative character; it's very gratifying to reinstall the stones and see them operating at peak efficiency once more.
To purchase stone ground chocolate, visit the Taza website.
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