Traditional milling: knowledge to keep

The artisanal practice of the miller trade could soon be classified as ‘living heritage’ by the Ministry of Culture and Communication. Such a designation would support, promote and protect her.

The Moulin Michel de Gentilly is involved in the process. This is led by the Quebec Living Heritage Council (CQPV). It was initiated in 2015 by the Corporation du Moulin Légaré of Saint-Eustache. The idea behind the project is to preserve this traditional know-how, which today is owned by less than ten people.

According to Philippe Dumas, general manager of the Moulin Michel, the confirmation is in the air. “We want it (the designation),” he continues, making sure to specify that the thing hasn’t been formalized yet.

The CQPV confirms that “the request has passed the various stages of evaluation and analysis on the part of the Ministry” and that “these are positive responses that have been given so far”. “We have hope. Everything points to it being successful. [Par contre], don’t anticipate things. The process takes its course. It has not yet been approved,” emphasizes Mardjane Amin, CQPV spokesperson for the file.

A heritage to protect

Designation or not, the fact remains that the craft of traditional miller is worthy of some interest, if only to ensure a degree of permanence for the handful of heritage mills in Quebec that are still in operation, including Mill Michel.

Only seven mills would still produce flour by ancestral methods, which consisted of grinding grains on stone, using a mechanism of gears activated by the force of wind or water. This entire transformation process takes place under the watchful eye of the artisan miller.

“There are really only a few [détenir et à maîtriser] knowledge related to this practice. [Or,] there is talk of the retirement of certain artisanal millers in the coming years. It creates a certain pressure in the need for shelters”, underlines Mardjane Amin, touched but also concerned about “the rarity and vulnerability of this profession”.

Action plan

With this in mind, this spring, millers and managers of historic mills participated in a consultation meeting organized by the CQPV and discussed an action plan to protect and promote artisanal mills in Quebec.

The meeting enabled the participants to gather as much information as possible about the know-how of current millers and to question the future of artisanal milling in Quebec. “Where will we see each other in 10 years?” sums up the general manager of the Moulin Michel, Philippe Dumas.

Upcoming workout

At the time of writing, the action plan is being drawn up. But the CQPV is already working on one of its intended priorities: setting up a training course to teach the next generation of traditional milling.

It is that, since always, the training of the trade passes through the company. The apprentice lends a hand to the miller and learns “on the job”. “It takes about five years to fully master the knowledge,” estimates Philippe Dumas.

The proposed training will take place in two parts: theoretical and practical. The CQPV offers 45 hours of theoretical education online, followed by a practical internship of approximately twenty weeks in one of the seven rotating factories, of the student’s choice. At the end of this training, the latter will obtain the title of apprentice miller, sanctioned by the millers themselves, under the auspices of the CQPV.

Millers will be part of the trainers. Other experts will join them, especially agronomists, geologists or even representatives of the Association des Moulins du Québec, fine connoisseurs of the history of mills in Quebec. “It will be quite varied as a panel,” says Ms Amin, indicating that a dozen trainers will work together on the entire training, which will be broken down into ten course modules.

The content of this training has been considered in a coordinated manner. All the actors involved agreed beforehand on “what makes the profession of craftsman-miller on the scale of the province”.

The training will be given from the winter of 2023, to end a few months later, in the autumn. “We are talking about pilot training. It is given once, but if the demand is there, we can repeat it two years later,” says Mardjane Amin.

This training will not be sanctioned by the Ministry of Education, as it is primarily intended to respond to the lack of follow-up of all the factories involved. In an ideal world, a dozen apprentice millers would be trained in this way.

Protection of knowledge… and production

At Moulin Michel, the miller is Robert St-Cyr. He held this position for several years. At Moulin La Pierre in Saint-Norbert-d’Arthabaska he acquired much of his knowledge, which he in turn wants to pass on. But to whom?

In order to attract the right person in the long term, the general manager of Moulin Michel remains open to innovation. “Will there be a job as a guide miller, cook miller or even a year round baker miller?” he mentions one of the possibilities, citing the situation at Moulin Légaré as an example. ‘There’s a historian-miller there. In the winter he takes care of developing educational programs for institutions (not just the mill) and in the summer he does the grinding.

According to Philippe Dumas, “a kind of hybrid is to be developed” to ensure the sustainability of artisanal flower production.

The general manager also does not close the door on collaborations to keep the mill running. It could be, he says, a young miller who wants to use the mill for some project, whether it’s grinding the grain he grows himself or making flour for his own bakery. “That way, I think, we’ll be able to turn the mill.”

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