Walking into the Cortez Mill on North Market Street, one encounters an olfactory rainbow of smells that nearly defies description. At once woody and warm, yeasty and damp, the overpowering aroma of the 65,000 pounds of wheat daily milled into flour is not soon forgotten. And that distinct aroma recalls the long lineage of milling history for the Tanner family that began in the 1930s when Gary and Trent Tanner’s great-grandfather built a water-powered flour mill on the La Plata River between Hesperus and Farmington.
Eventually the family operation moved to Bayfield. In 1949, the Cortez Mill burned down and was rebuilt in 1950. In 1965 Gary’s father, Halworth Tanner, along with Earl Hart and Bill Palmer, purchased the local mill. Palmer and Tanner remained partners until 1996. Eight years ago the Tanner family purchased the remaining shares of the business and have been the sole owners ever since. The mill currently employs 15 workers and director of operations Dave Lamke – seemingly a small staff for an operation that mills between 65,000 and 70,000 pounds of wheat a day and turns out between 40,000 and 45,000 pounds of flour each day.
Stroll down the aisles of City Market, Fry’s, Safeway or Alberton’s in any of the Four Corner states or in West Texas, and you will find 5-, 10-, and 25-pound sacks of the familiar Cortez Milling brands: Valley Queen, White Rose, Red Rose, and Bluebird flours. Grown by farmers from Pleasant View to Monticello, the hard winter wheat milled in Cortez is truly high-altitude. High-altitude flour builds better protein and provides more gluten that allows for more stretch without breaking, essential in the making of fry bread and other delicacies.
Fine, white and light flours – the first to come off the roll stands – Valley Queen and White Rose are ideal in cake and pastry making, and produce a finer texture and more rise. Slightly less fine and unbleached, Red Rose is a straight-grade unbleached flour with a little higher protein and more gluten and is the standard for many cooks.
But it is Bluebird Flour that is their No. 1 seller, particularly in New Mexico and Arizona. Tanner says that Bluebird Flour, exceptional in its elasticity, has become the staple for the Navajo and Hopi people: “They prefer our flour for the making of fry bread.” And it’s because of his Native clientele, that Cortez Milling continues to bag its trademarked Bluebird Flour in their iconic cloth bags. Multi-use bags made from cotton, Tanner explains, are better for the flour and have great appeal as sewing and craft material once the bags are empty. Native folk art has featured the Bluebird design in clothing, bags, dishtowels, aprons, and quilts, even woven rugs.
The transformation from a kernel of wheat into a particle of flour is a long and winding road. Once the farmers cut the wheat and bring it into the mill, it begins a ripening process called a sweat. Wheat typically has to sit in storage for 2-3 months at 10-12 percent moisture before its qualities are ideal for milling. Then it is cleaned and readied for grinding by adding enough water to bring the moisture content back up to 15 percent and letting the wheat set for 16 hours in large tempering bins. The tempering process toughens the outer bran coat and softens the inner endosperm.
The milling begins when wheat is sent through a series of rollers which crush and grind it, producing that signature aroma of grain under friction. The wheat is then sifted through multiple sifters which separate out the flour that is fine enough to be used in the final product. The remains are returned to be re-processed until as much flour has been extracted as possible.
Ideally, the millers aim for a 74 percent extraction rate; that is, for every 100 pounds of raw wheat coming through the mill, 74 pounds of it goes out as flour. The remaining product that does not make the grade is sold in 50-pound sacks as bran, wheat shorts, and cracked wheat – useful high-protein livestock supplements. Tanner is proud of the fact that 100 percent of all the wheat they purchase goes out as food product or livestock rations. There’s no waste. Even the leftover chaff and straw is picked up by local farmers who mix it in with their livestock feed.
Cortez Milling is proud that their flours have no preservatives, that they use a plant-based product for their bleached flour, and that they only add to their final product what is government-mandated, namely B vitamins and iron which are lost in the milling process. Cortez Milling also sells whole wheat flour as well.
So the next time you decide to bake a pie or a cake, muffins, scones, or bread, shop local. Flour milled here in Cortez from wheat grown throughout the county be local farmers doesn’t get fresher or more delicious. And it keeps more of your money here at home.
This recipe comes from the 2015 edition of the regional magazine, Celebrate Our Spirit. I have added to it a little powdered milk which, a reliable source tells me, adds extra flavor and is favored by many Navajo cooks.
To make this fry bread the traditional way, lard is necessary. It has a high-burn point and is what helps give fry bread its savory lip-smacking quality. So set aside your dietary scruples, buy a tub of lard, and enjoy a truly authentic regional delight.