Perched atop the Neshaminy Creek in lower Doylestown, PA, sits a nearly three hundred year old flour mill. A multi-level stone barn, as idyllic as any Thomas Eakins painting, holds within its walls the trappings of a fully outfitted 18th century flour mill. The machines and tools, as well as the systems, including grain elevators, almost-working water wheel and grain elevators, harken back to a time when it was common for a family or a group of families to operate a flour mill in order to barter with other nearby makers. The dearth of these antiques seriously rivals the collection of the nearby Mercer Museum, famous for its collections of artisanal tools. Unlike the Mercer, however, the majority of the tools and machinery operate quite effectively, and allow the users to turn a profit.
The mill and the surrounding property in question is Castle Valley Mill. In its most recent iteration, Castle Valley has become the go-to source for some of Philadelphia’s finest bakers and chefs in their collective quest to offer local, authentically stone ground and whole grain products. Mark and Fran Fischer, the dynamic duo who co-own and operate the mill, with scant help from their teenage children, are taking their operation to the next level. I caught up with them on an overcast, drizzly Spring afternoon, the type of weather that allows them to take a step back from production and focus on reorganization.
Upon entering the barn, dozens of mills, complete with varying sizes of millstones, were scattered in a thoughtful if not dizzying array on the first and second floors. The Fischers of today pay homage to the Fischers of the past; most of the production takes place on mills that Mark’s grandfather collected many decades ago, after he purchased the property in 1947. Technically, Mark is about as savvy as they come. His background in electrical engineering as well as his can-do and somewhat auto-didactic nature has made his leap from the corporate sphere to the manual labor lifestyle a seemingly painless one. His adoration of clever, old machinery, (perhaps a genetic predisposition) makes him a natural fixer-upper. In the beginning, the mill subsisted with two Alsatian buhr mills but the need for more grew with more accounts. For now, their product line includes: soft whole wheat flour, hard whole wheat flour, grits, cornmeal, rye flour, rye berries, emmer flour, emmer berries, spelt flour, spelt berries. Presently, the mill is outfitted to create 7,000 pounds a day of product.
His exemplary tour was well-rehearsed and thorough, and I was taken aback at the sheer volume of knowledge Mark has accrued in the process of bringing Castle Valley back to life. Quickly glossing over the difference between a one pass and a gradual mill, I was embarrassed by my ignorance of the processes that allow my profession to exist. I lamented that I lacked proper education in this regard. How could a baker, or chef, truly value the end product when they lacked a coherent understanding of the overall ingredients? The mill to oven to table movement seems imminent. Needless to say, my crash course in eighteenth century milling is not nearly complete.
Luckily, it didn’t take long for the Fischers to realize they were offering niche products at a time when the culinary communities of Philadelphia and surrounding counties were bitten by the local bug. They take pride in the mutually advantageous influence on their supplying farms; their corn is now growing completely non-GMO at their behest, and the crop was among the most successful in the area. Like many small artisanal businesses, the end product can vary season by season, crop by crop, and for the Fischers, that’s part of the charm. Regarding his price points, he admits that it’s “somewhat of a crapshoot”, though he consults with other millers and operations of similar quality and scale. It is a business after all, and he believes his pricing is fair when one considers labor, quality, and most importantly, the ethics of supporting local business. The furthest any of his grains travel is from Harrisburg, and they aim to keep it that way.
As of this writing, the Fischers have only been able to taste the breads and products of their partial labor at a handful of establishments. But what they have been able to sample, they can attest, “we are smitten”. “It’s a love fest” when they taste the delightfully inventive ways in which other artisans are utilizing their product line. Favorites among them include Philly Bread’s “Philly Muffins”, and High Street on Market’s Anadama loaf. Upon hearing where we bake, they simultaneously lifted their eyebrows in awe.
Just in their third year as a commercial business, they are dedicated to sharing their wares, donating monthly to local charity Philabundance, as well as to the education-based non-profit Our Shared Ground. Though Mark Fischer envisions a community where his offerings are in as many lunch boxes as on triple-dollar sign platters, he can still admit: “I’ve become a bit of a bread snob”. That’s what we like to hear.