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  • Flour & Factories: A visit to Shipton Mill

    Flour & Factories: A visit to Shipton Mill
    Huge lorries, full of flour outside Shipton MillWords and photo by Julia Georgallis.

     

    Before I was a baker, I worked as an industrial designer for a bit, where I found a great deal of joy in the tidiness of production lines. During my masters I started to look into how food is mass manufactured and was totally horrified by it all, but at the same time amazed at how it stopped populations from starving in a post-war era. Things have moved on since then, financial gain being more of a motivator than starvation and what goes into processed food remains a contentious issue.  Additionally, with Brexit looming and the trauma of supermarket panic-buying sparked by COVID-19, how we find our food and what we put it in it is back in the spot light.  I have many conversations about flour - which ones we should be baking with, concerns about gluten, concerns about production etc... Flour, after all, is important. It is the backbone of any bread making recipe and grain is still a staple ingredient of many countries.  At some point in our history, we all understood grains and their importance to daily life, food chains and economies. Nowadays, however, flour seems like it is a magic trick, a white dust pulled out the air and paired with an inherent suspicion of mass scale production AND gluten, it occupies a very small space in public consciousness. 

     

    In 2017, I drove out of the city, heading towards an ambling canal close to Tetbury.  I had come to visit the flour producer, Shipton Mill, so I could understand the milling process better. 

     

    This is basically how milling works and how flour is produced:

     

    It's aim 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 white bit of the grain – the thing that is most close to white flour - containing most of the carbohydrates and some vitamins, proteins and minerals.

     

    The process of milling looks enormously complicated.
    But actually, when you boil it down, all a roller mill does is use huge rollers to separate the bran, germ and endosperm, shaking and sieving them each down to powder. The biggest sieve is at the top of the process - think of a colander with extra large holes and then, as the grain moves down the factory it moves into finer and finer colanders.  Different strains and different parts of the flour are then remixed and used for different products – the finest, whitest concoctions are used for Italian 00 pasta flour or French baguette flour; robust brown flours with flecks of bran and germ are used for wholesome wholewheats, or mixed back into white flours to add nutrition. 

     

    Flour in many UK mills, including Shipton is still fortified with vitamins, which surprised me greatly – it’s a hangover from the post war period to make sure that there is enough nutrition in each bag of Shipton flour. I was upset by this. Like many others, I have a tendency to assume that we all must aim for natural, organic and untampered with food all the time. But many, many of our foods, are in fact fortified with good reason - sometimes, we just do not get enough nutrition from our food. And this is not a bad thing.   

     

    I always assumed Shipton Mill was a lot smaller than it was - the product FELT handmade.  Rather than finding an old stone grinder though, I was on the newer site of the roller mill – a process that is more suitable for mass production and, therefore, feeding more mouths. I was a little disappointed by this prospect, in my head newer production methods equated to an unhealthier flour than at Shipton’s stone ground sister site.  I spent a couple of hours at the mill, lead through each level, peering into every  room with all the 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. 

     

    After looking long and hard at flour, working with different millers and grains along my years as a baker, I have learnt that heavily industrialised isn't always the worst thing in the world. Though high tech production seems incongruous to the very nature of the very-old milling process, we are very often whipped into a media frenzy of being afraid of what’s in our food. When we look at flour and its nutritional content, when we break down what it can provide for our bodies, it would turn out that bread IS good for us - and the most component of making sure it is good for us is all it really is which part of the grain we eat.  The simple matter is not the flour or the manufacturing process itself but that good flour is good for you, bad flour is bad for you but no matter how good the flour, if you buy from the wrong type of mass industrialised food producer then it’ll be bad for you anyway. And Shipton Mill is definitely the right kind. 
     
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