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Meet the Last Miller, Guru of Sicilian Ancient Grains

Meet the Last Miller, Guru of Sicilian Ancient Grains

Filippo Drago is working to give a new life to Sicilian grain varieties that were on their way to extinction,rediscovering and recovering a forgotten heritage.

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"They call me the last miller. It’s true that there are very few of us still around but so long as there are people who love grains, mills will survive”. These are the words of Filippo Drago, the Sicilian guru of ancient grains, those cultivars which first appeared and flourished in Sicily before they began to disappear in the course of time. The descendant of three generations of millers, today Drago is the businessman owner of the Molini del Ponte in Castelvetrano, a small village in Trapani province, but his fame has now spread beyond the borders of Sicily, so much so that his flour is in great demand from London to New York.

The adventure that led him to rediscover and recover a forgotten heritage first began when he studied the story of ancient grains in the texts written by Italian agronomist Ugo de Cillis and found out that many seeds of autochthonous Sicilian grains were preserved in the Museum of Caltagirone, an inland Sicilian village in the province of Catania. These grains are “kept alive” and sown for mere anthropological purposes: varieties that are preserved but not utilized, practically as if they were in a state of hibernation.

A list of ancient grains almost extincted

Drago immediately took a notion to cultivate them and convinced several farmers and landowners to convert their crops in order give a new life to grain varieties that were on their way to extinction: “Tumminia, Russello, Biancolilla, Perciasacchi, Bidì and Maiorca: wholemeal flours for which there is no market demand because nobody is familiar with them. And yet, these integral and healthy grains are so well suited to new consumer requirements that it is almost superfluous to call them organic."

"Today, my grains represent a dream come true, fruit of a farmers’ agreement. Tumminia is the most remarkable of them all and is even mentioned by Goethe: it is sweet with a fragrance of hazelnuts and roasted almonds. A flour for authentic connoisseurs. It is sown in March and is the traditional poor man’s flour with its small, dark grain. Just think, people used to be ashamed to take it to the mill."

On the contrary, Maiorca is a grain which used to be consumed by the wealthy and is used to produce a white flour: “This is the grain for Sunday consumption – explains Drago – ideal for the bread and sweets served on feast days. My flours may even smell of chamomile or wild fennel according to which herbs grow in the field”.

Drago goes on to say: "A type of grain I love is the Perciasacchi, which is particularly elongated in shape. Its name derives from the fact that when it is carried in hemp bags, its elongated kernel pierces holes in the fabric. This too is light in colour and highly valued, ideal for making pasta. Biancolilla has the same name as an olive cultivar and yet it is a variety of grain. This is the flour used to make an excellent and fragrant bread, that of Castelvetrano".

A balance between past and future

Drago’s work is a constant struggle to strike the right balance between past and future, between the ancient skills passed down from one generation to the next and the need to keep pace with change: but how is it possible to reconcile these two aspects in order to go on developing the business? “Simple. On one hand, I acquire state-of-the-art machinery to select and keep the grain clean and, on the other, I continue to practise traditional stone milling with a particular type of stone whose grooves have been notched out by special hammers. Each stone is still crafted with special patterns – all of which date back to the 1800s – suitable for grinding a particular type of grain”.

Now that even the New York Times has discovered the Molini del Ponte, featured in an article, Filippo Drago does not intend to stop here: "My future mission is to go around the world to recover ancient autochthonous varieties of Sicilian grains and to continue to grind them as in the past: it may sound odd but it is true to say that the future is set in stone”.

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