Of all the historic treasures up and down the Ottawa Valley, the quaint Watson's Mill in Manotick must surely make a gastronome quiver. Even more so, when you consider this picturesque relic from the past, home to no fewer than five ghosts by some accounts, has been milling flour from locally grown wheat since 1860.
That makes Watson's Mill older than Canada. Small wonder it is recognized as the only industrial heritage site in Ottawa.
Even better, on weekends, visitors to the mill can purchase giant loaves of bread made at Richmond Bakery from Watson's whole-wheat flour, or take home milled whole-wheat flour in two-, five-, 10- or 50-pound sacks to do their own baking for their next 100-mile dinner.
And, tomorrow, you can make Watson's Mill a family outing as staff in period costume operate the stones from 1 to 3 p.m. (Other milling days this season are Aug. 10, Sept. 7 and Oct. 12.) Best of all, admission is free.
"I think there's a growing interest in the mill, partly in response to the 100-mile diet," says mill manager Isabelle Geoffrion.
"In previous years, we always went through two to 21/2 tons of wheat, but last year we ran out and had to put in an emergency order for more. So, this year we've ordered five tons.
"We've started selling our flour at local farmers' markets, and we've increased our family and children's programming, which has encouraged repeat visits to the mill. And we promoted the mill at a culinary trade show last fall at the Hampton Inn."
Small surprise, then, that attendance at 24,000 last year was up 60 per cent over 2006.
The mill was built by Moss Kent Dickinson and his partner Joseph Currier from limestone quarried from the banks of the Rideau River. Originally, the mill was called Long Island Flouring Mills, then Long Island Mills, and later Manotick Mills. Since its purchase in 1946 by Harry Watson, it has been known as Watson's Mill.
In 1972, Watson sold the mill and the nearby Dickinson House to the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, which restored one run of millstones and accessory machinery to their 1860 operating condition. The original water turbines still drive the millstone up to 120 revolutions per minute.
"The reason a lot of the original equipment survived is because this was a working gristmill until the mid-1960s and Harry Watson wanted it preserved," Geoffrion says.
Now, with public demand for local, environmentally friendly products, "we're able to offer local flour, made from wheat grown 15 minutes away by Peter Ruiter on his farm on Highway 16, milled the old-fashioned way with original equipment from the 1860s."
And what about the ghosts, you may ask?
"Some people see things and others do not," Geoffrion says. The mill is a favourite haunt for clairvoyants and those who follow the paranormal.
The cavalcade of ghosts includes two men somewhere in the attic -- one who always seems to be sawing wood, and another who is "sort of an angry presence," says tour guide Emily Fiszer, who makes it her business to know about such things.
"The Ottawa Haunting and Paranormal Group was through here, and they believe there's a ghost of an aboriginal woman at the bottom of the stairs in the basement," Fiszer says. No clues as to why.
Then there's the ghost of a little boy in the basement, "but we don't know who he is," Geoffrion adds.
Finally, the most famous spooky tenant is said to be the spirit of Ann Crosby, who married Joseph Currier in 1861, a year after the mill was built. A month after their wedding, her skirt was caught in a revolving turbine shaft on the second storey of the mill. Crosby was thrown against a support beam and killed instantly. She was only 20 years old.
For our taste of Watson's Mill history, we asked friends of the heritage site for favourite recipes using the home-grown flour. In practically no time at all, we had recipes for Jacquie Breedyh's Best-Ever Banana Muffins, another for Peanut Butter Cookies, Nana's Raisin Maple Cookies, Whole-Wheat Bread from Audrey Renton, and another bread that I adapted, based on a recipe from Richmond Bakery.
Renton, 87, even brought in a selection of antique baking gadgets, including a hand-crank breadmaking "machine" with complete instructions on how to use it embossed across the metal lid.
"I find the cookie dough using Watson's Mill flour has a slightly sandy texture," says Audrey Anderson, who provided her recipe for Ginger Cookies. "I've been using the flour for about two months now, and I find it's as easy to work with as regular flour from the store."
In my adaptation of the bread recipe from Richmond Bakery, I found Watson's Mill flour seemed to absorb more liquid than regular white flour. And, as expected, a 100-per-cent whole-wheat loaf can be rather dense (because home cooks don't use a lot of commercial additives to fluff it up). I lightened the result a little by doubling the yeast and incorporating a small percentage of ordinary all-purpose white flour in the mix.
By all means, drop out to the mill and pick up a bag for your baking date in the kitchen. A two-pound sack will be plenty to give the bread a try.
Adapted by Ron Eade from Richmond Bakery
Makes 2 small 8- by 4-inch (20- by 10-cm) loaves
From: Audrey Anderson, Manotick
Makes about 40 cookies
Where: 5525 Dickinson St., Manotick; 613-692.6455; www.watsonsmill.com.
When: Remaining milling demonstrations this season: Tomorrow, Aug. 10, Sept. 7, Oct. 12, all from 12:30 to 3 p.m. The mill is open daily, including weekends and holidays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission and parking.
History: Watson's Mill is one of the few remaining original operating gristmills in North America and the only industrial heritage site in Ottawa.
For sale: Stone-milled, whole-wheat flour made from local wheat is available for purchase daily at the mill. Whole wheat bread, baked at the Richmond Bakery with Watson's Mill flour, is available for purchase at the mill on weekends at $3 per loaf. Fresh cookies baked by volunteers, also made with Watson's Mill flour, are available for purchase on weekends. For those who wish to experiment with Watson's Mill flour, a recipe book is available for purchase for $10 in the mill gift shop.
Watch Ron Eade's eight-minute video step-by-step on how to make Watson's Mill Whole-Wheat Bread on his blog, Omnivore's Ottawa. Find more recipes using Watson's Mills flour.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2008