Otto File Maize

Otto file or eight row flint maize is a heritage variety of corn grown in Italy, including Garfagnana, Northern Tuscany. It was originally introduced in the 19th century from New England. It is so called because of the eight rows of kernels arranged around the cob. The extremely flavourful kernels are hard and round, have a high protein and a low starch content. All of these properties make it a prized maize for the production of polenta. The kernels also vary in colour from yellow to red, producing a flecked polenta once dried and ground. It was the kind we were served at the Filecchio polenta festival (see my post Sagra Ethnography for that story) when we were in Garfagnana last month.

In the Serchio valley of the Garfagnana region, there is an old flour mill at the tiny hamlet of Piezza on the banks of the river – the Antico Mulino di Piezza. It dates back to 1736 and now mills wheat (specifically emmer, the Garfagnana farro), rye, barley, chestnut, chickpea and, most importantly, otto file maize. Some of the maize is grown in the flats next to the river and mill, but the crop had already been harvested by the time we visited. Although the mill has been modernised to some extent, two of the four millstones are still water powered using the old sluice system that diverts the Serchio through a race, past the horizontal wheels and back again into the river.

piezza_millThe mill in the valley

mill_wheelThe mill wheel

milled_corn_processMilling process: 1. Dried corn waiting to be milled, 2. the feed, 3. the millstones, 4. the hopper collecting the milled corn.

Of course, we bought some of the freshly milled maize to bring back to Athens (along with some chickpea flour mentioned in a previous post). Here I hope to transform it into a base for a warming, autumnal ragú or as polenta ‘crostini’ (fried set polenta slices) that can be topped with seasonal ingredients such as sautéed mushrooms or braised cavolo nero and other greens.

* * *

I grew up knowing flint corn as Indian corn where it was not considered of much use beyond ornaments at Thanksgiving. However, it seems that the flint corn variety of otto file is being revived for culinary use in the US. Ironically, it had died out and had to be reintroduced from Italy. For this development see the interesting online article from 2013 in The Salt, the foodways arm of NPR, on eight row corn. Also, for those of you who are curious, Epicurious magazine has a 2015 online article entitled What is the Difference Between Polenta and Cornmeal? that highlights the significance of otto file maize in the cooking of polenta.

For more information on other working mills of Garfagnana, Francis wrote a post There is a Mill, an Ancient One in his blog From London to Longoio. The valleys of Garfagnana once had many water powered mills, but now only very few still operate in the region. But, we learned that the mill at Fabbriche di Vallico is only in opertation during chestnut  season to produce farina di castagne for which Garfagnana is noted.

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8 comments

  1. We New Englanders always adorned our fireplaces with Otto File or Indian Corn ,as we called it, in the fall.
    Wonderful blog, Debi, thank-you. Will make Necci tomorrow afternoon. Luckily acquired some Italian chestnut
    flour.

    Like

    • We did too – a little further south in Pennsylvania. I have seemed to picked up Britishisms! (Autumn = Fall) I’m afraid I have also adopted British spellings.
      Very glad you acquired chestnut flour. It is gluten free, so the crepes/pancakes (necci) can be tricky to flip – i.e. they don’t hold together very well. I usually slip them out onto a large plate and then flip then back into the pan. Hope you are successful. The flour is sweeter than other flours and is quite delicious. You might want to do a google search for chestnut flour brownies which many bloggers rave about.

      Like

      • My husband loved them..he is a big fan of marron glaces.. Must work on flipping them more skillfully.
        The plate hint helped. Will search for a recipe of chestnut brownies. Thank-you, Debi.

        Liked by 1 person

    • It is a great GF ingredient. I was amazed at the explanation on why it needed to be cooked for such a long period of time even though it might have looked “done” in 10 minutes or so. As wikipedia puts it, the longer cooking time is “necessary for even gelatinization of the starch” and since we prefer it set and then cut into slices for frying, this is definitely a necessity!

      Liked by 1 person

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