07 . 06 . 17
Flours & Factories
Flumes in the mill, a box of different grains and Shipton Mill lorries. Writing and images by Julia Georgallis.
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 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.