From grain to flour: the first annual BBC Countryfile/TCMG bakeoff (part one)

Everything you need for a bake off

Fergus Collins, editor of BBC Countryfile magazine, showed up bang on time for the first annual bake off during which we compared seven different kind of flour.  Six were stone milled using wind or water power by membes of the TCMG and the seventh was a random bag of flour I picked up at the supermarket earlier that day.  I figured we should not only compare the 6 organic, wind or water power stone milled aka SUPER VIRTUOUS flours with each other, but we should also compare them to the product of an industrial miller.  The object, you may recall, was to experience, with Fergus, the sensual differences between different flour, milled in different ways by different millers in different parts of the country.  Before you get excited, by sensual, I mean only the differences in how the flour appeared, felt, smelled, and tasted.  It did not say anything so we could not compare how it sounded. 

First, though:  a bit about grain.  From row to field, to county to country, every grain of wheat, like every snowflake, is unique.  Several factors influence the final product from the variety that is planted to the soil in which it is grown, to the weather conditions and the manner of farming.  If they do not grow it themselver, millers choose where to buy their grain in order to get the final product they want.  Some millers in the UK mill 100% UK grain and other elect to blend UK grain with imported grain in order to get a slightly different flour than the one they would get from milling 100% UK grain.  Individual bakers need to make choices, trading off within their value system things such as food miles, nationalism, foreign trade partners, organic versus non organic, cost and performance.

Millers who grind with stones prepare their own stones. 

Close up of a mill stone at Cann Mills

 This is called “dressing” and would have been done, once upon a time, by a professional stone dresser using a series of iron hand tools called mill bills.  In an earlier post I wrote about mills bills and the origin of the expression “show me your metal”.  Today, though millers dress their own stones, carving the grooves and channels that grind the grain.  Although there is some commonality between the pattern on mill stones, every millers’ stones are unique.  He or she will carve more or less, and larger or smaller grooves and channels into the stones in order to get the consistency they want.  Some flour is very fine like talcum powder.  Other flour is sandy in texture.  Still other flour is fine but has big flakes in it.  The product of a stone mill, therefore, is unique the miller:  it is the miller’s fingerprint and to that end, it has an individuality and a humanity of its own.  The baker who bakes around learns to distinguish how flours “bake” and can make an informed choice about the particular flour he or she wants. 

Fergus and I started by pouring a little of the flour on to individual plates and comparing what they looked like and felt like.  Some were uniformly beige, others were quite flecky.  The most unique flour was from The Watermill at Little Salkeld.  It was white with big flakes of beige bits in it.  From looks, on to touch and here we noticed two things:  texture and humidity.  Some of the flour was soft and silky, some of the flour was mealy, some was grainy, some was sandy and some was gritty.  Further, whilst some of the stone ground flours were quite humid – you could almost get them to stick in a ball when you squeezed some in your fist, the supermarket flour was as dry as dust which we thought was probably an indication of the fact that it was milled quite a long time ago.  There was a sell by date on it but no “milled on” date.  In fact, I don’t recall that any of the flours had a “milled on” date and now I don’t have the bags so I cannot check.  If I am wrong, millers, please let me know!

So, from looks, to texture, to humidity the flours were unique.  Next post will be all about kneading performance and tasting dough. 

Next installment here.

My thanks as ever to the millers:

The Watermill at Little Salkeld
Redbournbury Water Mill

The Prior’s flour from Foster’s windmill in Swaffham
Stoat’s flour from Cann Mills watermill
Mount Pleasant Windmill

Wicken Windmill

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