At the age of 76, Luis Azzilona is not thinking of retirement. His side hustle while he was working in research and development for a multinational became his full time occupation when he quit his job some years ago. But he has been passionately making corn flour for 35 years.
He operates the Errotabarri mill that has worked incessantly for 350 years making corn flour in Gamiz and supplies Michelin star restaurants in the Basque region in Spain.
His quest for asking questions and for improvising means that he has been able to find the secret to keep the water mechanism functioning till today telling us he has had to use parts from an aeroplane in one case to keep the mechanism running.
It is a chilly morning when we arrive at the mill and as we enter what we notice is the smell of the dry corn being grinded into flour. It is a smell that is both homely and welcoming.
Today, the water mill is one of only a handful of mills that are still operating in the region. Luis knows all he needs to know about corn. His approach has earned him recognition everywhere and he supplies many of the regions top restaurants including the restaurant of Eneko Atxa, Azurmendi who have brought us here for a typical Basque breakfast.
In this valley close to the bay of Biscay, a special type of corn grows which is perfect for the corn flour that is used to make talo (similar as a concept to the Mexican taco).
Instead of being paid to make the flour, he takes a part of the corn as compensation. It is how things operated in the past. When the corn comes in, they weigh it and once they turn it into corn flour it is then sold on.
The building has been modified over the years but Luis says that the mill has remained exactly the same as before. When parts need to be changed, he needs to find ways to replace the parts to keep the mechanism functioning. It is not as simple as it sounds. Today only a handful remain from the more than 800 mills that used to operate until the 1950s. One of the reasons is that today no one has the skills to keep them functioning when parts need changing.
The region can be considered lucky to have found someone like Luis to carry out such work. He is combining his passion with his previous professional knowledge of working in research and development with a multinational to keep that mechanism functioning using unorthodox equipment.
Luis tells us that when you think about it ‘the mill is an impressive technology that was created many years ago. At the time people used to think about how to do things, that has been lost nowadays.”
He has come to believe that the Errotabarri mill is perfect. “There is a canal of water not far from the mill and the depth is 4 and a half metres which is rather unique because most mills have a depth of 7 to 8 metres. The bigger the depth, the faster the movement which makes the grinding of the corn less fine,” he says.
He believes it is essential to try and keep this old culture even though you cannot make a living solely on the income of the mill. “What makes the area special is a type of corn that is grown here called the Lavassu. This is a special corn with skin of 0.1 grammes compared to 3-4 grammes of skin in the normal corn. It is this difference that makes the corn flour so special,” he said.
At the mill, 50 kilos of corn are left to dry at 110/120C for 48 hours. “What is important is not to roast the corn but rather to dry it. In the past, the farmers used to produce corn but would not grow anything else so they would leave it to hang and dry till March. By putting it in the oven, it has reduced the period for drying. It is essential for the corn to be completely dehydrated because otherwise it would turn into paste rather than flour.”
Luis is very happy with the current batch of corn that he has and he said that when the produce is not good, it is given to pigs. “The corn flour is not sold outside the region because we do not have enough,” he said.
After the visit to the mill and grinding facility he invites us for a typical basque breakfast. He makes the talo by hand using just corn flour, water and salt. He flattens the dough and then works rapidly with his hands to make it round. It is then put on a hot stove. The talo is served with cod, peppers and olive oil or else with chorizo.
The warm talo are perfect on this chilly morning and they combine perfectly with the condiments. It is the perfect start to the day.