Who You Might Meet On A Chain Gang Cycling Tour – Part 1

The Bloke at the Fortified Mill

On the road from Payrac to Rocamadour, on the 4th day of our Dordogne cycle tour, we usually visit a fascinating fortified flour mill called Cougnaguet.

It’s run by an elderly couple, and of course we’ve met them so many times now it’s always a great pleasure for both parties to see each other again. The main subject of this tale, though, is a sting in the tail, a shocking postscript to a very interesting visit.

The mill is 700 years old, and is France’s only remaining turbine-driven flour mill. The reason it’s so rare is that it just pre-dates the widespread use of the water wheel. The mechanism they used at Cougnaguet was to dam the river in order to divert it down a fast-flowing channel. They built a mill over this channel, and the river is used to turn 3 (I think it’s 3) turbines which turn the almighty mill stones that grind the flour.

Water of Life - Honest!The problem with these turbines is that they shake buildings to bits, so the walls at Cougnaguet are 7 feet thick. The great advantage of the water wheel is that you don’t need a 7-foot thick wall to attach it to, so turbines were rapidly phased out. Which makes this one unique and fascinating – it operated as a working commercial mill until the 1950s.

The Bloke gives a very interesting demonstration of the turbines in action, and shows how the mill stones can be adjusted very simply to change the coarseness of the flour. You can actually mill the flour yourself – I’ve done it many times – and they sell bags of flour milled using these ancient methods.

One of the most interesting things about this mill is an ingenious method of protection from brigands. Flour was valuable stuff in times of hardship, but protected on both sides by tall cliffs, the monks who owned the mill paved the bottom of the river for a distance upstream – their dam creates a lake almost 1 mile long stretching up the river valley. In the event of an attack, all the turbine gates were thrown open, and the rapid emptying of the lake across the smooth, paved bottom would sweep would-be robbers away. You can still see the original paving.

All this for about 3 Euro, so where is the catch?

This couple always invite us upstairs to the room above the mill where they have some of their own walnuts and a room where we can sit and chat and relax. And then he invariably brings out a bottle of his very own eau de vie, or vieux prune (Americans would call it ‘moonshine’, I think). He is so proud of this home-made hooch, and it is truly awful. Nobody ever believes me though, everyone always thinks it’s a real treat that this lovely old French gentleman is offering his home-made eau-de-vie (literally ‘water of life’), a less appropriate name I couldn’t imagine.

Paint stripper doesn’t begin to cover it. But everyone always tries it and several times I’ve thought to myself ,‘it can’t be that bad’, or fellow Chain Gangers have persuaded me that it’s rude to turn it down, and I give in. From memory my brother Mike liked it enough to go back for more, but I might do him a disservice.

What a lovely bloke, but take a tip. His walnuts are better than his water of life.

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