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.
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.
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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.