The colorful stuccoed houses of Loro Ciuffenna seem stacked like multi-colored children’s blocks along the gorge flanking the Ciuffenna River flowing below. If you cross the bridge spanning the river – lined with flower boxes holding cheery pink and red geraniums – and then head down a twisting cobblestone alleyway skirting the river, you’ll come to an old wooden door, half-open, a rickety chair in front of it. A collection of black and white photos pinned to the door tell the story of the mill inside. Look down to your left and you’ll see the Ciuffenna River below this ancient sandstone and brick mill that clings to the rocky face of the river gorge.
Walk in and you’ll meet living history, sinewy 89-year-old Beppe, the last mugnaio (miller) of Loro Ciuffena’s early twelfth-century water-powered flour mill, the only one of its kind in Tuscany still operative. Though no longer milling wheat into flour (a broken axle ended the grinding life of that ancient millstone), Beppe still opens the water to power the millstones grinding corn into flour for polenta and the one grinding chestnuts into chestnut flour.
When I asked him if he was the son of a miller, he grinned telling us, “No, I married una mugnaia.” Pino asked him if he had fallen in love with the mill or with the miller’s daughter. He’d lost his heart to Nunziatina, not the mill. But when her father took ill and then died, her family was desperate. “Come faremo a vivere?!” (How will we survive?) Beppe offered to take over the mill. “Benissimo!”, the relieved Nunziatina agreed, adding “but you’ll have to marry me first.”
Payment for the grinding of the corn, wheat and chestnuts could be made in cash or more often, con baratto (in trade), by leaving a portion of the flour produced to the miller who could then sell it. For every 100 kg.s of flour produced, 10 kg. would be il baratto. (Still today, most of us pay the milling of our olives into oil con baratto, i.e., leaving some of the oil at the mill).
A widower for nearly twenty years, Beppe spends his days at the mill: “I’d rather be here than in the bar playing cards,” he told Pino as he tugged on the chain to open the water below, setting the huge millstone in motion to ground the corn flour.
Beppe, il mugnaio di Loro Ciuffenna, keeps alive a slice of Loro Ciuffenna history.
After him, who?