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Tales from Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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3
The Oil Mill

The oil mill of Halabor is based on a really existing one in Sarlat, France, which has been producing walnut oil and related products using the same methods since the early 1620s. Most of the work is still being done by hand.


~~~

THE OIL MILL

Autumn had come with a mild warmth once again in the year 3002 to the small Gondorian fishing and merchant town of Halabor, and with autumn came the time of walnut harvest. Some of the rich, aromatic nuts had already been harvested while still green, either to preserve them in honey, or else to make a fine walnut liquor of them, to the joy of the customers. But now at the end of Halimath(1), the nuts had finally shed their shell and began to fall from the trees. The first farmers – traditionally the tenants working in Lord Orchald’s fruit gardens – were arriving already, carting large canvas sacks full of walnuts to Master Faelon’s oil mill, near the crop fields of the Infirmary, to have the Lord’s annual share of walnut oil pressed. Others followed them, either to have their own oil made, or to sell the nuts to the oil merchant for the same purpose. Work in the oil mill was well on its way, although it would be the fullest in the upcoming Wintring(2).

Master Faelon, the old oil merchant, was something of a rarity in Halabor, a small town mostly peopled by the Old Folk, under the rule of a lesser Dúnadan nobleman. He hailed from a family of almost pure Dúnadan blood – his ancestors had come with Erellont, the founder of Lord Orchald’s House, from Númenor on one of Anárion’s ships – but of common birth nonetheless. As simple men-at-arms, his ancestors had served the House of Erellont faithfully, first in Ithilien, and later in Lossarnach. When their Lords had been forced by circumstance to seek a new home in Halabor, though, one of his forefathers had chosen to become a merchant instead of a soldier, and they had traded in oil, spirits and other such products ever since, with the blessing of their Lords, who, too, had had their modest profit from that change.

Due to their origins, they had excellent contacts as far as Pelargir, Harlond or even Umbar in the South and Dale and Esgaroth in the North. The oil-mill – the only one still working this side of Minas Tirith – was as old as the trading business of its owners, yet still in the best working order. As walnut oil, vinegar and spirits earned an important part of Master Faelon’s profits – and thus the taxes he paid his Lord each year – Lord Orchald had made it his custom to pay the oil mill a visit when the walnut harvest began.

This year, however, he did not come in his own august person. Instead, he sent his only son, young Lord Herumor, as a sure sign that the young lord was supposed to begin learning his future duties in earnest. Master Faelon had no objections. Like everyone else in Halabor, he liked their young lord a great deal, as Herumor was an easy-going, personable young man who treated everyone with respect and took his duties seriously… save one. He seemed reluctant to find a suitable bride just yet, saying that he was still too young (which was, in all honesty, quite true) and wanted to take his time to find the right woman to share the rest of his life with.

In all other things, he was a responsible and obedient son, who knew what he owed his family and his subjects. He had already taken over some of his father’s duties, mainly those that required much bodily exertion, like the training of the Castle Guard and working with the new Wardens. It seemed now that Lord Orchald had decided to introduce his son to the more peaceful lordly duties as well, and young Lord Herumor went willingly everywhere his lord father had sent him. Like to the oil mill on this very day, to watch the fruit of their orchards being turned into the finest oil that was highly valued in the entire Gondor, from the border of the Mark down to Pelargir.

The young lord was welcomed before the oil mill by Master Faelon personally. True to his Dúnadan origins, the old oil merchant (as opposed to his son and heir who was doing the journeying part of the business in these days) was still in a respectable shape, albeit he could not be far from his seventieth summer… or perchance already beyond it. Tall he was, compared with his fellow townspeople, dark-haired and grey-eyed; perhaps greying a little around his temples, and there was much silver in his neatly trimmed beard, but still, no-one would have guessed his true age by his looks alone.

“My Lord Herumor,” he greeted the young knight with honest pleasure, “welcome to our modest manufactory, welcome! ‘Tis always a delight to show it to a new visitor; to explain how things are done. How come that your lord father has sent you this year, though? He usually likes to visit the mill at harvest time.”

Herumor laughed. “Father said I was way too generous in using walnut oil for my scabbard and horse gear, thus I ought to learn how much work is needed to produce it. But I have come gladly. It surprises me every time anew how much skill and knowledge our people possess. It makes me proud to have the privilege to protect them.”

That was the way he usually talked to his subjects: always courteous, always having a well-founded compliment for them… the same way his lord father did. Master Faelon nodded in contentment. Lord Orchald and the Prince of Dol Amroth had done a good job with the young lord’s education; about that there could be no doubt. Herumor might have been a spoiled brat at the time he had left for Dol Amroth, albeit always a good-hearted one; he had come back as a man grown, and an honourable man at that.

“Come with me then, my Lord,” he said, “for the hired hands have already begun with the cracking of the walnuts, and we will barely have enough time to see the mill properly ere today’s work must begin.”

He gestured to the right, and Herumor followed his directions eagerly, curious to see everything that belonged to the oil winning. Thus they came first to the long, narrow shed behind the warehouse, in which firewood for the winter was stored most of the year. Right now, though, a long trestle table was standing in the middle of it, with benches on both sides, and two dozen or so women and young girls were sitting there, cracking the walnuts on smooth, flat pebbles with small hammers, picking out the sweet kernels from among the crushed shells and throwing them into flat wicker baskets in the middle of the table. They were so fast that it sounded as if a swarm of woodpeckers would knock on the nearby trees, looking for something edible. When a basket was full, small boys emptied it into one of the really large ones standing next to the entrance, waiting to be brought to the mill.

“They are very skilled,” said Herumor in amazement. “But will they be able to keep up this speed all day?”

“Nay, of course not,” replied the oil merchant, “but they do not have to, either. ‘Tis only so urgent ‘til the first sixty pounds of fruit have been filled into the mill. After that, they can slow down, for making the first amount of oil would take several hours.”

“Can the walnuts not be knocked in advance?” asked Herumor. “Or would that make the kernels dry out too much?”

“It would,” replied Master Faelon, “which is why we cannot do it. Now, we should not linger here too long. I wish to show you the channel wheel ere it gets turned on fully.”

He led the young lord further behind the building, where a small creek came down from a nearby stony hill, falling from considerable height of a sheer rock and driving the large oak wheel ceaselessly. The wheel itself had a small protective outbuilding, barely large enough to contain it properly, which joined the mill itself from the back.

“This is the very core of our mill,” explained Master Faelon, surveying the wheel with unabashed pride. “Over a hundred and fifty years old, but still in perfect working order. It must have been quite the woodcarver who has made it. ‘Tis so heavy that – using the power of the falling water – it can easily drive the grinding stone.”

“The water flow seem a bit too weak to me for that,” commented Herumor with a frown. He had seen the flour mill often enough to know that more power was needed to bring a grinding stone to turn.

“That is because we have reduced it for the time the mill is not being used,” said Master Faelon and showed him a crank that hung on the wall. “As soon as the sixty pounds of fruit are filled into the mill pan, we increase the water flow, and the channel wheel begins to turn the metal axis, which goes under the grinding stone, driving the gear above it, which, in turn, drives the other metal shaft, also situated above the grinding stone, and…” he trailed off, realizing that he had lost the younger man somewhere during his little pontificating. “Come with me, my Lord,” he said, smiling. “’Tis easier when you can actually see what I am talking about.”

Entering the grinding room, Herumor had to admit that seeing the entire system indeed made it easier to understand how the mill actually worked. The middle of the room was dominated by a huge, flat stone pan of some sort, in which the grinding stone – an intimidatingly huge thing – stood vertically on its side. It was fastened to the second metal shaft, of which Master Faelon had just spoken, in the middle, so that if could move around in the entire pan. The gear above it was made from some hard wood.

“Rowan?” asked Herumor, a little uncertainly.

Master Faelon nodded. “Aye. ‘Tis used in order to prevent any noise, or else we would all go deaf here; the foreman first. After all, the grinding wheel weighs almost a thousand pounds.”

“Made in granite then, I assume,” said Herumor.

Master Faelon nodded again, this time a little distractedly, for several men entered through the other door, emptying great baskets full of walnut kernels into the huge stone pan that already seemed full enough.

“This will do for the time being,” he said to Bodric, the foreman of the mill: a stocky, slightly balding man near fifteen years his junior. “We should start the mill. Open the crank of the channel wheel, and you,” he looked at the men with the now empty baskets. “Bring me the prepared firewood to the heating room.”

They all did as they had been told. Moments later Bodric returned, holding a flat wooden paddle twice the span of his hands, yet without a hilt. With this paddle, he began to spread the walnut kernels and later the grain, as soon as the grinding wheel began to move around, so that the resulting grain would be of even quality. ‘Twas almost frightening to watch, as he had to lean out of the way of the huge granite wheel in time at every round it made.

“He knows what he is doing,” said Master Faelon placatingly, seeing Herumor’s concern. The wheel was moving almost noiselessly indeed, Herumor noticed, hoping that Bodric would not miss its approach anyway. “He has done this for more than twenty years. He knows the mill by heart… almost better than I do.”

“How long takes it for the walnuts to be crushed?” asked Herumor.

“Three quarters of an hour,” replied Master Faelon. “They must be ground very fine, you see, or we cannot obtain a proper walnut paste, of which the oil will be pressed.”

Herumor looked at Bodric, who was bent over the stone pan, spreading the grain and kernels tirelessly, with new respect. Doing that for three quarters of an hour would certainly kill his back. “How do you make a paste out of the grain?”

“By adding water to it,” explained Master Faelon, “About two pints for the sixty pounds of walnut grain. The paste is then collected and poured into a cast iron cauldron, where it is then mixed and heated by a wood fire, at a fairly low temperature, for another three quarters of an hour.”

“Why must the heat be low?” inquired Herumor, following the oil merchant to the adjoining heating room, where two men were already about to stock the oven, upon which the enormous cauldron stood, with firewood.

“Heating is the most important and most delicate operation in the oil production,” explained Master Faelon. “The more the oil is heated, the better the yield in the press, the stronger the taste and the darker the colour. Heating is indeed essential for bringing out the fruit flavour, which is why I need to watch the flame myself. Much experience is needed to produce the right flavour.”

“Does this meant hat different customers prefer their oil in different shades and flavours, and that you can control it by controlling the heat?” asked Herumor in surprise. He always only saw walnut oil in one version: honey-gold.

The old merchant nodded. “Aye, that is basically true. For sale in our shop or to sellers, we heat the oil at an average temperature to obtain an average yield for a moderate colour and taste: not too strong and not too light. However, the Horse-Lords of the Mark prefer their oil almost greenish-blond, with a very mild taste, while for the shipments that go to Pelargir or Umbar, we need to make it deep amber, sometimes even a rich brown. Those are then very strong in taste, but that is how the Southrons like it.”

Herumor made a mental note of the fact, intending to order a bottle or two of that strong Southern version for Master Andrahar of Dol Amroth. The Armsmaster hailed from Harad, after all; perchance he would welcome the familiar taste. He was duly impressed by the fact that the oil merchant could make the oil match his customers’ different tastes, though.

“That is hard work,” he said, wanting to voice his respect.

“It is,” agreed Master Faelon, “but it also brings a handsome profit, so we are not complaining. If you will forgive me now, my Lord... I need to start building the fire in the oven. But Enea here,” he nodded towards a plain-looking woman who was entering the room at his very moment, “will be glad to show you the press, I am certain.”

Enea, who was the foreman’s wife and youngest sister to Howel, the oil-merchant’s clerk, bowed obediently and led the young lord, who was, in fact, younger than both her own sons, to the press, which was situated in a small adjoining room. ‘Twas a fairly big thing, the press was, and the small room was so filled with the heavy sweetness of crushed and heated walnuts that Herumor found it hard to breathe.

“This is where the walnut paste is brought, carried by a wooden shovel, once the water poured to the grain at the end of the crushing evaporates,” she explained. “We then cover the mould with heavy canvasses that we use as a filter to let the oil through and hold the paste. Then we put it all between these two thick pieces of wood, the top one protected by an iron plate from the screw, which then comes down gently, driven by the millstone’s force, to press out the oil from the paste.”

For a moment, Herumor remained silent, amazed by the complexity of the oil mill, a machinery within which every piece had its own purpose and helped to operate the next one at the same time, from the channel wheel to the screw of the press. His father had been right. He had needed to see with his own eyes the amount of work and skill behind the oil production, in order to truly appreciate the end results.

“How long does the paste need to stay in the press?” he finally asked.

“About a quarter of an hour,” answered Enea. “With sixty pounds of walnut kernels under the grinding stone, we obtain three gallons of virgin walnut oil in the press. With hazelnuts or almonds, the yield is only two gallons of virgin oil out of sixty pounds of fruit. Those are much harder than walnuts and contain not so much oil.”

“You seem to know the operation well enough,” said Herumor.

Enea shrugged. “Bodric and me, we have worked for Master Faelon all our lives. While ‘tis true that I work more for Mistress Eirendel in the still room nowadays, I still get to help out in the mill during harvest season; mostly with the bottling of the oil, as I have steady hands and a good eye for measure.”

“Is it bottled right as it comes from the press?”

“Of course not!” Enea laughed. Once pressed, the oil obtained is still cloudy. It needs to be decanted in a drum for two weeks, at the very least, so that the sediments can fall to the bottom. Only then can it be bottled, when it has become transparent like coloured glass.”

“And what happens with the residue that remains in the press?” asked Herumor.

“Oh, that,” she said with a shrug. “We make flour of it and sell it to the husbandmen. The swine particularly have an appetite for it, and it makes them nice and fat. Almost as good as feeding them on acorns, it is.”

Still blown away by the complexity of oil production, Herumor thanked the woman who then hurried off to catch up with her work. The young lord stayed in the oil mill all day, watching every phase of the oil-making in detail, even trying his hand on the walnut-cracking, only to admit that he could not even come close to the speed of the women working there.

When he had several blackened fingernails due to misdirected hammer blows, he declared defeat and followed Mistress Eirendel to watch the bottling of the oil in relief. ‘Twas not this year’s yield yet, of course, rather the disposition of last year’s rests. Nonetheless, it was a pretty sight. They allowed him to give it a try, too, and he managed not to drop the small bottle or let the precious oil run down its side rather than into the bottle itself. That seemed to please the women, and they offered to share their simple food with him, which he accepted, for despite being a grown man (well, barely) and a knight, he still had the appetite of a growing boy.

“’Twas the same with my own lads before they hit twenty-five,” said Enea comfortingly. “You will grow out of it, too, my Lord.”

“I hope so,” Herumor sighed. “’Tis embarrassing, truly it is. I shall end up like Uncle Forlong if I go on like this.”

At that, the women laughed so hard they had tears in their eyes, for no-one could have been more different from their slender young lord than Forlong the Fat, the much-loved and well-respected Lord of Lossarnach, who might be his uncle but with whom he had no likeness at all. Not where looks were concerned in any case.

“That,” declared Mistress Eirendel. “is highly unlikely, my Lord. But even if the unbelievable might happen one day, as long as you share the generous heart and bravery of your lord uncle, I think not that any of us would mind it too much.”

“Except, perchance, the pretty young girls in town,” commented Enea, grinning.

Herumor blushed furiously, which caused even more giggling among the womenfolk present, who seemed to find his embarrassment endearing. So much so that he found it better to leave with the last shreds of his dignity still intact.

Walking homeward along the bank of the Great River, he thought of his years as an esquire in Dol Amroth, the splendour of the Prince’s castle and the riches of his town and smiled thoughtfully. He had loved Dol Amroth and the courtly life (after he had got over the terrible homesickness, that is), but now he realized that he could live no-where else than in Halabor. This was his home, and this simple folk, who possessed surprising skills nonetheless, were his people, and he could not imagine having anyone he would rather live with or any place he would prefer to this one.

Becoming the Lord of Halabor one day suddenly seemed a lot less frightening, despite the responsibility that would come with it.

~The End – for now~

~~~

Halimath is the Middle-earth equivalent of our September.
Wintring is the Middle-earth equivalent of our October.


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