JOHN TAGLIABUE, The New York Times, July 22, 2008
The Rotterdam Journal — The Dutch are building windmills again. Up and down the coast, out from port cities like this one, you can see them: white and tall and slender as pencils, their three slim blades turning lazily in the North Sea breeze.
These generate electricity, of course, rather than grind grain. The government has already built one enormous farm of mills far off the coast, where they’re inoffensive to tourists, and there are plans for a second farm. Yet it is also building, and rebuilding, mills like the squat, homely ones that have seemingly always dotted the Dutch countryside, and reflect as much the nature of the country as do tulips or Gouda cheese.
“Revival might be a bit strong,” said Leo Endedijk, director of the Dutch Mills, a group that supports mill restoration. Yet last year the government, concerned that one of the foremost symbols of the Netherlands was about to disappear out of neglect, approved an $80 million program to build or restore 120 mills, of roughly 1,040 still standing. That has created a backlog of work for previously strapped mill restorers.
“We have special companies, very specialized mill makers and restorers,” said Mr. Endedijk, in an office in the shadow of De Gooyer, a soaring 18th-century mill now housing a popular brewery. “They would not have the capacity to restore 120 mills.”
The need to find renewable sources of energy is driving the Dutch to build the modern mills, which Mr. Endedijk insists be called turbines, not mills. “We as an organization don’t work with modern wind turbines,” he sniffed, adding, as if to underscore the gap between the traditional and the contemporary, that while the four blades of traditional windmills turn counterclockwise, the three of modern wind turbines go clockwise.
But the fast pace of change in the modern Netherlands is reviving interest in the old mills. As immigration changes the face of Dutch cities and globalization spreads its veil of uniformity over life in the Netherlands, many among the Dutch are looking for their roots. “It’s a little bit of national pride,” said Lukas Verbij, whose company, Verbij Hoogmade, is one of the leading mill builders and restorers.
Some of the renewed interest in mills is driven by the search for traditional food and drink. Patrick Langkruis, whose bakeshop, Het Bammetje, features 28 different kinds of bread and 35 different rolls, uses only flour ground by a traditional mill. “The taste is fuller, there’s more flavor,” he said. “It’s also because the grains are ground slowly.”
His supplier is Karel Streumer, who has been grinding out ordinary and exotic grains for the last eight years at his mill, De Distilleerketel, or distillery pot, in Delfshaven, on the edge of Rotterdam. He uses technology — huge mill stones and enormous wooden gears that make visitors feel they’re inside an immense and ancient clock — that has not changed since the mill was built in 1727.
Mr. Streumer, 54, his shock of curly white hair perpetually dusted with flour, is one of a growing number of millers who are taking over restored or rebuilt mills. In addition to wheat, he said, counting off his products on a dusty hand, he grinds familiar grains like corn, rye and oats, and some unfamiliar ones, like grain sorghum, or milo, and spelt (a kind of wheat). One customer arrives once a month from Frankfurt to pick up 55 pounds of mashela, or pearl millet, which is widely used in African cooking.
Curiously, though the revival of the mills is a back-to-the-roots thing, many customers are natives of a wide range of countries, Mr. Streumer said, including Ethiopia, Morocco and Turkey. “Eighty percent of my customers are not natives of the Netherlands,” he said.
One of them is Samson Tesfai, whose restaurant, the Taste of Africa, specializes in dishes of his native Eritrea, which he fled in 1986 because of the fighting between his homeland and Ethiopia. Each week, he said, he buys mashela, sorghum, ground corn and wheat flour from Mr. Streumer to use in the ethnic dishes he prepares. “We can find it elsewhere,” said Mr. Tesfai, 43. “But this is a good address, with a good product, so why go somewhere else?”
Neither the spread of ethnic restaurants, with increased immigration, nor the return to traditional tastes among the Dutch is enough to keep millers like Mr. Streumer in business. Without a crew of volunteers who help out on weekends, he said, the mill would not be profitable. “It’s hard to make the money to keep the mill in good shape, and to pay employees, too,” he said. “We are not professionals.”
So the mills remain a matter of the heart, rather than the pocketbook. Except, of course, for builders like Mr. Verbij, 48. He represents the fourth generation of his family to run the company, which was founded in 1868 and employs about 20 master wood and metal workers.
“A wave of building is coming,” Mr. Verbij said, when the government releases its latest round of subsidies. “Every owner could apply,” he added. “It’s a kind of lottery.”
He just finished a $1.9 million project to rebuild with traditional technology a mill in the town of Soest that was destroyed in 1930. So attached were the townspeople to their mill, he said, one woman donated money from the sale of her home.
Not only the Dutch but all the world seems to love a windmill. Mr. Verbij has built four in Japan, beginning with one in Osaka in 1989. And despite the crush of work in the Netherlands, he now finds time to work on three mills in the United States, including restoration of the giant Murphy Windmill in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, one of the world’s largest, which was built in 1905 and is badly dilapidated.
“It’s our biggest project,” Mr. Verbij said. “It’s nice to see all those people happy at the sight of a windmill.”