Flours and Factories – A visit to Shipton Mill

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(Above: A box of different grains, Shipton Mill lorries and grain stores, flumes in the mill).

I started my bakery career not as a baker at all, but as a product and industrial designer. As a designer, I took a great deal of joy (don't laugh) in industrial processes - in having things produced and the tidiness of production lines. During my masters I started to look into how food, our most important product, is mass manufactured and was totally horrified by it all, but at the same time also sort of amazed at our ability to stop people from starving through using industrial processes. I remember thinking, of the mass production of food that grew more prevalent post WW2, ‘OK, so pumping your food with loads of E-numbers and other substances isn't great, but was also the antidote to feed a starving, rationed nation. Things have moved on since then, money being more of a motivator for mass production than hunger and what goes into processed food remains a contentious issue. Nowadays, I don’t deal in mass anymore - I work as an artisan, using small scale, handmade production techniques to make bread, rooting mainly for the little guy, the independent maker and the batch producer – but I am still totally fascinated, albeit suspicious of big production. So when my bakery colleagues suggested a visit to our flour supplier, Shipton Mill to look at their roller mill, my ex industrial designer brain got quite excited.

We gathered at the bakery early one morning and drove out of the city into the rolling, flowery Cotswaldian hills until we reached an ambling canal close to Tetbury. There has been a mill at Shipton Moyne Wood since the 1300s and today this older site produces flour using traditional stone grinding methods. Milling is an old thing you see, one of the oldest types of food processing and definitely one of the first forms of production – taking one thing (grain) and using clever hands and clever tools to turn it into something else (flour). We, however, were on the newer site of the roller mill – a process that is more suitable for mass production and, therefore, for feeding more mouths. Though it was a Sunday and the canal boats were sauntering down the water lazily, the noise of the machines hummed away behind the huge lorries full of grain and the corrugated factory façades, always at work. We spent a couple of hours at the mill, lead through each level, peering into every heaving room with all its industrious machines that would have been at home in some kind of 1960s’ film about space exploration, each of them working away to store the grain, inspect the grain, separate, sort and sieve the grain until some of it was nothing more than fine, white dust.

The aim of milling is to turn the three different parts of grain - the bran, the germ and the endosperm – into something we can bake with and eat. The bran and the germ are the ‘brown bits’ which very often end up as a bi-product of milling but contain lots of fibre, fatty acids, proteins, B-vitamins and minerals. The endosperm is the largest part of the seed, the ‘white bit’, containing most of the carbohydrates and some vitamins, proteins and minerals. The whiter the flour, therefore, the more endosperm it contains and also the less nutritious it is, but it isn’t as bad as everyone thinks, providing its made by a miller with integrity who doesn’t strip it of all its goodness (some millers will bleach their white flours, for example). The process of milling looks enormously complicated. But actually, when you break it down, all the roller mill does is roll and separate the bran, germ and endosperm, essentially sieving them each down to powder. The biggest sieve, or mesh, is at the top of the process - think of a cylindrical colander with extra large holes and then, as the grain moves downwards through each level of the factory, it moves through finer and finer meshes to turn it into smaller and smaller particles. Simples really. Different strains and different parts of the flour are then remixed and used for different products – the finest, whitest concoctions might be used for something like Italian 00 flour or French flour; robust brown flours with more flecks of bran and germ are used for wholesome whole wheats, or mixed back into white flours to add nutrition.

I had always assumed, before visiting the factory, that Shipton was a small producer. The quality of the flour is real nice to bake with and I often notice a difference in batches, sometimes the flour is delicate and we can’t put it through the mixer for very long, sometimes it is tougher and I suppose variation and quality are things that we automatically associate with batch or small production. But flour, just like the yeast in our bread, is a living thing, sensitive to a huge number of outside factors and so to have no variation is impossible, even if it is being produced on a large scale. Visiting the mill has sort of changed my mind a little about mass manufacture – we (me included) are very often whipped into a frenzy of being afraid of how our food is made and what goes into it. Big can be synonymous with bad. But, actually, sometimes, we are so disconnected from food production that we either don’t think enough about it or think about it too much. We should instead be more rational. Flour production, for all its heavy machinery, is still a simple thing. Grain goes in. It gets a bit of a shake. Flour, the backbone of so many recipes, comes out. And once it’s out instead of worrying so much where it's come from maybe its best, if we know that it's been produced, as in the case of Shipton Mill, by a good pair of hands, to look to the future and do something good with it, as a way to say thankyou to it.

Written by Julia Georgallis

Yeastie Beasties


(Above: photo of yeast starter Franz making a mess on my work surface with some wholemeal flour)

When I was a child I went through a phase of keeping bugs, hiding them away in boxes so that I could inspect them and watch them grow. Aged 7, I decided to ensnare about 5 bijillion caterpillars and hatch them in my classroom, much to my teacher’s despair. I liked looking at their miniature worlds and at how they changed every way, convinced these worlds were similar to my own, but a bit smaller and more buggy. So bugs were cool. They were my friends.

A few years ago, without knowing too much about it, I started making bread. I knew there was very precise mixing followed by a lot of waiting around for things to do their thing, but what those things were and what they were doing I didn’t know. I found out that what I was waiting for was yeast. So first I tried making bread with packet yeast, then I tried fragrant, fresh yeast and then, finally, I was introduced to making bread using a natural yeast starter. A starter is a ferment made by mixing water and flour together. Various bacteria, yeasts, live on and in flour. The water wakes them all up so that they happily munch on the flour’s sugars. These yeasts create the bubbles in our bread, making it rise and there have been hints of them also being a bit good for your gut, but that’s to be discussed another time. All the term ‘sourdough’ means, in fact, is that it has been made with one of these naturally cultivated yeasts instead of factory made fresh or dried yeast.

Yeast, be it packet or fresh or natural, is a type of fungus - a living, breathing organism. The only way you can see proof of life, however, are the bubbles it leaves behind. The first starters I made were anonymous bits of goo that kept forming brown skins and that hung around the back of my fridge ominously until I remembered them, got a bit frightened about eating them and threw them down the sink. How would I know they were alright to eat? It was like watching all my bugs again, but I didn’t have the fearlessness of a 7 year old. But I persevered. I noticed changes. Bigger bubbles. Smells, sometimes cheesy, other times like booze. All of a sudden I was taken back to being small, watching the caterpillars turn to cocoons, keeping an eye on these little worlds. But yeast is much easier to catch than bugs. It’s everywhere – on your hands, on your skin, in the air... It comes from the environment that it has been produced in, depending on where it’s been or who has mixed it or which flours have been used to feed it. Which is what I liked about it – it was tailor made food to the extreme – if I moved it to a different country or asked someone else to mix it for me, the bacteria in the starter would be different.

I began to name my starters. There was Alan and Beryl, who were combined to create Caja, who was shipped off to Sweden and looked after by a Swede called Magnus for a year. Once she was back in Blighty, she was mixed with South American corn flour and became Dolores who was, in turn, mixed with yeast starter from the bakery that I work at. All of a sudden, I had a soap opera of yeasts, personalities, flavours that lived in my kitchen – the goldfish at the back of my fridge that I would feed with more flour and more water to keep alive. And now I can’t go back. I understand now, why I have heard stories of people in days gone by leaving their homes in search of new lives with nothing other than a few clothes and a yeast starter. There are sourdough hotels that offer to feed starters whilst their owners are on holiday. I even went to a 60th birthday party a few years ago… for a starter. But I totally get it. These are the bugs in my garden; our pets that help us make bread. Cultivating your ferment really is the ultimate way to grow your own food – but rather than needing a patch of soil or an allotment, you can, literally, grow it by harnessing thin air and asking the little worlds that live all around to give you a helping hand.

*If you would like to learn more about yeasts and how to cultivate your own starter, I am running a series of 12 workshops up until May 16th called ‘Yeast in the East’ which explores the differences between packet, fresh and natural starters. Book *

The Topical Pie
Monday 30.11.15


Photo: A mega pie, roughly about the same size as my own face, that was made during our mince pie making workshop at The London Artisan market, Brick Lane)

The first mince pie of the year is a monumental moment for me. It marks the start of my favourite season. I blahdy love Christmas and I blahdy love that weird and ambiguous filling and a lovely flakey pastry. But every year, without fail, I find myself at some point being baffled by them. I mean, what on earth even is mince? I’ve been chasing the myth of the mince pie around for a while now, trying to get to the bottom of this bizarre piece of pastry. A few weeks ago, I began my mince pie offensive by running a two hour mince pie making workshop in Brick Lane as part of The London Artisan market. I taught people about the ingredients of a mince pie and passers by decorated their pies with different shaped pastry before being baked in my mobile oven. But I also armed myself with the story of the pie and gave participants a little history lesson as well.

I have always assumed that mince pies were an invention of the Victorians because, in my head, the Victorians invented Christmas (which is not true, but I like to imagine that it was perpetually Christmas in the 1800s). But it goes back much further than that – the mince pie came about after those returning from the Crusades brought back spices and recipes from the Levant in the middle ages. Middle Eastern cuisine is not afraid of combining meat with fruit – a winning combination, I think – but this was very new to Britain. And so, the original mince pie did actually contain mince meat, as well raisins, sultanas, currents, cinnamon and cloves – all ingredients that derive from the gastronomically rich Islamic world.

It’s a bit unclear how the pie jumped from import to being eaten exclusively at Christmas, but I assume it is because of its decadence and therefore only eaten on a special occasion. Mince pies were also huge and square, eaten as a meal rather than as a sweet snack. The squareness of the old mince pie was supposed to represent Jesus’ crib (I feel like this is a pretty vague and quite catastrophic metaphor here, but oh well). In the late 1600’s however, Oliver Cromwell got the hump with the mince pie and decided that they were heretical symbols of Catholicism, so he banned them. What a spoil-sport. When they resurfaced a few years later, they were much smaller and gradually the meat disappeared. There is no real reason given as to why they shrunk, but I have decided that the reason for their diminutive size is because they were still slightly clandestine and I envisage some kind of mince pie dealer hiding them under his coat, trying to flog them on the pie black market (that is 100% made up, by the way).

So there you have it – the mince pie is a Middle Eastern import, did contain meat, and shrunk because of its clandestine activity. Now, I know I’ve darted around some big issues here, such as what the Crusades actually were, the horrible things going on in the Middle East at the moment (mega understatement, I know) and also the tensions in our own society between various religious communities. I’ve done that on purpose, because at the end of the day, I’m a baker from North London not a politician and, let’s face it, I’m talking about pastry here. But, one thing I do keep thinking, and it seems frivolous, is that the mince pie is actually very topical right now, what with its history of something that came directly out of a war between Christianity and Islam. So, when someone offers you a mince pie this year perhaps a nice way to look at it, is as an excellent collaboration between two quite literally warring worlds and as a symbol of inter-culturalism. Forget about your shwarma, the mince pie is very quickly becoming one of my favourite Levantine imports.

Happy Christmas everyone. And remember, give pies a chance. (Sorry, I just couldn't help myself).

Writing by Julia Georgallis
Image by Farida Farooqi

The Etymology of Bread
Wednesday 13.05.15


I spend quite a lot of my time thinking about the first person to discover bread. I appreciate that someone didn’t just stumble across a loaf of rye sitting alone in the forest - it was most probably a happy accident, a caveman who left some grain paste out in the sun too long perhaps. Whatever happened 30,000 years ago, bread hasn’t failed to leave a lasting impression on us, so lasting in fact that it has edged its way into our vocabulary to become synonymous with the essence of life itself. We might all be familiar with the expression ‘bread is the staff of life’ meaning that bread is vital to survival, but in Egyptian the word for bread (‘aish’) also means ‘life’. Roman poet Juvenal quite rightly stated that ‘bread and circuses’ are all leaders need to stop their subjects rioting. Even Gandhi recognised that people are swayed more by what’s in their stomachs than religion (‘There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them but in the form of bread’). Bread in these cases is not just bread - it stands for all food and is stronger than even religion and government.

In English, bread idioms usually refer to money, money being the thing that pushes so many English-speaking consumerist countries forward, and therefore becoming interchangeable with what makes the world go round. The ‘Bread Winner’ makes the most money. ‘Bread and butter’ are our means to survival. ‘Dough’ itself is a slang term for money. If we know ‘which side our bread is buttered on,’ we know from where we can get our sustenance.

And then there are bread expressions that describe something fantastic. ‘The best thing since sliced bread’ - industrially sliced bread being the greatest invention. If we separate ‘the wheat from the chaff’ we are throwing out the unnecessary, chaff being something that cannot be used for making bread.

But there are words too, peppering our language that bread has got into the very heart of. I would like to turn your attention to the name of my baking project, ‘The Bread Companion’. ‘Companion’ really struck me as beautiful once I realised its etymology. Companion is a friend, an ally, someone who means you no harm and keeps you from being lonely. Companion in English is from the old French ‘compaignon,’ which is from the Latin ‘com-panis’, literally meaning ‘with bread.’ A friend is someone you share bread with.

I much prefer bread in this context as it refers to something a bit deeper than money, wealth and being the best – it becomes about connecting oneself to another human being. Bread, or food in general, is about sharing and giving. We share food to support and enjoy company with each other. This, to me, is the heart of my project and I aim to use bread as a gateway for people to form real connections to their food, neighbours and their community.

Writing by Julia Georgallis
Photo by Marine Duroselle

The Bread Democracy
Wednesday 29.04.15


Bread, drugs and alcohol; Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? What I am referring to are the three most democratic foodstuffs that every single culture over almost the entirety of humankind’s history has had in common.

Think about it. Drugs have been used around the world by all walks of life for many different purposes – from calling on the gods, to seeing into the future, to performing surgery. And we all know about the many forms of alcohol across the globe. I think of the kava root grog I drank in Fiji that made my tongue numb, the red wine I drank on Lake Geneva with a massive vat of cheese in front of me and of the homemade raki my grandfather sheepishly passed my friends and I in Cyprus last summer.

The most exciting of these three to me, however, is bread. Name the country, and I will show you the carb! Chewy rye bread from Germany. Airy flatbread from Turkey. Sweet corn bread from Peru. Bread doesn’t claim to induce the oracle and it won’t change your brain patterns like drugs or alcohol might – but it is magical stuff, made from a strange alchemy between grain, liquid and raising agent.

I like the ancient-ness of bread. I like the idea of it having been ingrained (pardon the pun) into human consciousness, perhaps as a leftover from our early ancestors who worked out how to pummel some grain with a prehistoric pestle and mortar.

When I think about my aims over the next few months for the Bread Companion, I think about these elements - mainly dough’s history with human development and its democratic nature. The Companion will be a tool to reconnect us to bread and to introduce us to new recipes and ways of making it. To learn about bread is to learn about our ancestors from long ago and not so long ago, and about or neighbours who might be a few miles away or on the other side of the globe.

First post over and out - see you on the M25!

Writing by Julia Georgallis
Photo by Marine Duroselle