I have taken the bus from Bologna to Sasso Marconi, named after the inventor of the radio. His family lived here. Marconi's tomb, a massive fascist-era monument, is along this road. I am coming to visit Mulino Ferri, supplies of flour to il Forno di Calzolari and member of MontagnAmica.
Miller Marco Ferri, shoulders hunched, meets me at the door of his mill. The machinery is running but he and his family - brothers, sister, brother-in-law, and niece and nephew - don't have to do much more, at the present moment, than oversee it. The air in the mill is cold and he has his shoulders hunched and his hands tucked into his pockets. To replace the normal Italian hand gestures, at each outburst, he flaps his elbows.
How come your family are millers? “It's because we're all mad. They started it for a joke in '53.” He expels a mad laugh and his family, who are eagerly gathered around him as we talk, all fall about laughing too, all pink-cheeked. “The mill is like a beautiful woman, una bella donna, it draws you in, you fall in love and you couldn't leave it even if you wanted to.”
At the start, 'third-party' individuals would speculatively buy wheat, bring it to be ground, then sell on the flour. Now small entrepreneurs like that have been replaced by the very big industrial mills. He can remember, not so long ago, when the grain would arrive on ox- or horse-drawn carts. The iron rings to which the horses were tethered are still in the wall out front. He recalls them carrying all the grain-sacks on their backs up the set of steps to tip into the hopper of the stone mill. This is the mill whose photograph is displayed on their flour-bags, which now sits, looking tiny and hic, in a cobwebby corner.
Now, they mill the flour between rollers. They progress from grain to fine flour in small increments so as not to overheat or damage the flour. The mill could work faster, but they are happier to work more slowly for a better quality of flour. You can see the contained rollers in the picture of the family, with the tubes that whisk each grade of flour up though two floors, down through the sorting machine and back to the next set of rollers along for step-by-step refining. The whole building vibrates, it feels like I'm in the stuffy engine-room of a ship, complete with gangways and treacherous ladders connecting the 4 floors of machinery.
His considers his work for MontagnAmica, whose grain he machines, to be more for the community than for money. He sees himself as part of an effort to maintain local grain cultivation and keep the community together. “If we don't act, everyone will disappear from the countryside.”
Next door to the tall, square mill, his sister Anna is running the shop. It sells flours and biscuits a well as animal feed. He presses two bags of flour into my hands and then he and his sister take it upon themselves to brush all of the flour from the air in the mill off me. They dust me down, then give me a thorough sweep with a stiff brush. It's like a flour spa-treatment.
I ask Marco what he particularly likes about this job: “The flour, when it's milled well and it's come from the mill into the flour bags. It's not compacted at this point. I run my fingers through it and it's like clear water - limpida come' l'aqua.”