Grist to the mill

Judy O’Shea looks back at the huge restoration project that has brought an old watermill in Aveyron back to its former glory

“Oh my god,” I have said to my husband, repeatedly over the past 17 years, sometimes in disbelief, sometimes in disgust, often in awe, always in astonishment. I don’t remember the first time I said it – probably walking down the driveway, onto the bridge, and seeing the mill for the first time. The roof on the river side was tumbling down, the ruin on the hill was impossible to get to, and the upper barn, full of broken chairs and bags of chicken feathers, was impassable because of cracked beams. I said it that first time because I knew it would be our home.

I know I said it again after signing the final papers, realising we’d actually bought the ruins of a water mill in southern France and, speaking no French, were going to restore it – not just the living quarters and the barn, but the millrace, the reservoir against the back wall of the house, the 7m waterfall, the millstones, and the horizontal waterwheel buried in the mud, under the house, where the river would eventually run.

I may have switched to “What have we done?” during the two weeks when a mechanised jack hammer was digging out the three feet of concrete in the kitchen – poured there against the rising damp – while we hovered in the attic bedroom, wrapped in plastic to protect ourselves from the stone dust falling everywhere. I know I said it when my husband and children had finished digging the mud out of 30ft of underground tunnels that bring the river through the property to the water chute; only to have the river rise, fill the tunnels and threaten to pour into the house itself. There were no sluice gates then at either end of the millrace to stop it.

But most of the time, I said, “Oh my god” in sheer pleasure, often with tears in my eyes as when Germain Blanc, who was born in our house and whose father was the last miller, knocked on the door and peered into his birthplace for the first time in 30 years.

When he saw we hadn’t torn out the millworks, and that we had polished the walnut oil press, his 70-year-old eyes filled and overflowed. I was more pleased for Germain than for us when he saw the water pour over the water chute into the reservoir again after more than 40 years. And again, when he peered into the 2m bread oven, which we’d discovered behind a wall in the barn and that his father had bricked over just after the First World War.

Germain brought us treasures that he’d taken from the mill when he’d sold it years before. He’d saved the doors to the 16ft chestnut flour sifter hanging in the mill room, which the owner before us had put out on the street for the poubelle. The first time the millstones turned again, after five years of reconstruction, he presented the doors to us with great ceremony. There were tears all round when his family gave us the old handcart that his father had used to haul sacks of grain from the front terrace through our living room and into the mill room for grinding.

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Occasionally I said, “Oh my god,” in disgust such as the time I made the first loaf of bread with our new flour; it was full of grit because we didn’t know to clean off the mill stones after they’d been dressed. Or when our neighbour left a gift for our garden: a steamy pile of manure piled high against the driveway wall. I know I said it when I found myself helping Germain’s son slaughter two sheep, but my attitude changed when I witnessed the precision with which this man worked with his mother to render the sheep unconscious, kill them quickly and dress them; no words spoken, only utensils passed from clean linen and back.

“Oh my god” could have come out in complete astonishment when another neighbour offered to bring us some grain to charge the millstones for the first time. We thought we might need as much as 50 kilos, but he showed up with a 20ft trailer, ready to offload a ton, if we wanted it. We were astonished again when we had an open house for our village, thinking 50 or so people might come, and more than 300 showed up, overwhelming our capacity.

And again last year, when my husband successfully restored the walnut oil millstones, and put the massive press separating the dining room and the living room to work. The oil millstone hadn’t turned for more than 80 years and even Germain had never seen it function. So my husband, putting his French to the ultimate test, coordinated the mason, Germain’s son; our other neighbour, a fine woodworker; and the metalsmith, Germain’s other son, to reinforce the terrace, rebuild the wooden shaft, and remake the waterwheel. When the sluice gate opened and the vertical stone began to crush the walnut flesh, we all watched in awe.

We’ve watched with pleasure as our guest artists, who have come to stay for weeks at a time, discover the terraces, the waterfalls, their private house and studio over the river, and the hidden gardens. They often blurt out an “Oh my god” of their own when they see the turbines turning, and the sluice gates sliding, making flour and oil. Our artists in residence have included professors from some of the best art schools: painters, printmakers, sculptors, writers, and poets. They have worked and exhibited with us and our French artist friends, sometimes teaching, mostly learning from a new environment. Their art, informed by their surroundings, inevitably changed to reflect a new perspective on their world.

But the overwhelming emotion we’ve had over the years, and which continues to this day, is still awe, but not at the major exhibitions we’ve mounted, or at the group meetings of mill lovers, or even that we’ve learned to speak French well enough to argue politics, but for the little things: when water rushes through the sluice gate and hits the waterwheel, which hesitates, then suddenly accelerates accompanied by the whir of the stones above, we still can’t quite believe it can happen. When we grind the first grain of the season, and silky flour pours from the stones, we marvel at the ingenuity and audacity of the original creators of such technology on such a scale. We’re delighted with each golden loaf of bread from our own wheat, fresh from the oven. We never dreamed we would have litres of fresh walnut oil, ground on our stones, roasted on our Lacanche stove, then pressed through the huge levered press in our own dining room, or that we could bake dozens of pizzas in the massive brick oven.

And we never imagined the pleasure yielded by our garden: the first eggplant plumping up in its shiny aubergine jacket; the taste of new potatoes dug from the garden; the crunch of sweetcorn, picked two minutes before the water boils; the mounds of tomatoes and bushels of basil; and even the transformation of tidy spring rows to disorderly bushes groaning with fruit or deep purple cabbages pushing the beets off to the side.

The countryside in the Aveyron, largely undiscovered, surprises with each season. The steep Chartreuse hills of spring sprout herds of Roquefort sheep, swarming through the rich grass until it turns golden with grain in the summer then purple with heather in late autumn. We’re still delighted when our car is suddenly surrounded by sheep while driving along the small country roads, with the shepherd’s dog after our tyres, herding us into his flock. We often picnic on the crest of the hills overlooking the Tarn river valley with church steeples poking up from small villages every few miles.

But after all of these years, it’s the people who elicit the deepest emotions. Our French artist friends create nuanced contemporary work of international quality. Other friends present thoughtful political arguments and a surprisingly open-minded discourse and, of course, cuisine of stunning quality. And we’re continually surprised when Fran�ois leaves a basket of porcinis on the front step, early, before we’re even awake, or Marthe leaves a dozen fresh eggs, straw still attached. “Oh my god. Would you look at that?” we still stutter.

So when you buy your mill in France, make sure it’s high above the flood line, and has rights to the water. Then learn your grain, your French, and prepare to be surprised.

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