Flour and friends

I am starting the sourdough courses this weekend, and have ordered some important and interesting flours to both try myself, and demonstrate to the bakers. Flour? Important? Interesting?? Seriously?

Well, yes. I listened to a brilliant series of podcasts by Farmarama, where they discussed the grain used for baking bread, from growing, to harvesting, to milling, to baking. Here is the link to the first episode, if you’d like a listen.

I have a background in agriculture, and have always been fascinated by land use and how it relates to the environment, hence my initial foray in to keeping bees; they link us to our immediate surrounds the way no other animal can. Baking sourdough gives us an insight in to the importance of the flour we use, as sourdough is a live culture, and so responds best to complex, nutritious, and fresh flour. It is the process of digestion of the flour by the wild yeasts and lactic-acid bacteria which give flavour and rise to your dough, so using the best quality matters more in sourdough baking than in regular yeasted products.

This aspect gives us a chance to support farmers, growers, and millers who would otherwise go under the radar. Using stoneground flours milled in small batches means even white flour retains much more nutritional value, as the wheatgerm (or growing point of the wheat) is distributed through the flour, instead of being stripped off the grain – and then sold back to us at a premium as a health food…! There is also something called “population wheat“, where the seed has genetic variability within the variety, and is therefore able to adapt over time to specific conditions. How our agricultural seed is sold and produced is far from the pastoral scene we might imagine, and these locally-adapted crops are much more consistent and resilient, but aren’t necessarily available for farmers as they are not recognised on the commodities market where wheat is sold. Consequently, unless they can find a buyer, there is no incentive to go against the grain – literally.

Hodmedod’s have a selection of home-produced flours, including YQ wheat flour from Wakelyns Agroforestry. I have used it in sourdough and it is very reactive so I need to reduce the bulk proving time so it doesn’t go over. It’s not as high in gluten as some commercially produced flours so produces a less buxom freeform loaf, but the taste is amazing: so much more interesting than regular wholemeal which can be a bit cardboardy and coarse. The Small Food Bakery recommends using a tin for their YQ sourdough so perhaps I’ll try that next time.

I think we are getting used to discussing the provenance of our food, and I think an understanding of how the system works is important if we are wanting to support ethical farming – not just in production but in the marketing and sale of the end result. We see fields of crops and forget that the most common outcome is that it ends up in warehouses, sold on the commodities market and occasionally good enough for milling or malting, but mostly used as animal feed. The only influence producers can have is by increasing yield: flavour, nutrition and performance don’t come in to it, which is odd considering it is a foodstuff. By finding direct sources for farmers to grow their crops, more resilient and adaptive varieties can be grown, reducing the impact on the environment and the fluctuations in the farmer’s pocket.

Another consideration is the rotation. Wheat is such a hungry crop, conventional farming systems grow it year on year but it needs huge volumes of agrochemicals to support this, and the break crop is usually oil seed rape, which as a beekeeper, I am ambivalent about in the extreme! Organic farming requires inputs of leguminous plants to build up the fertility in the soil so that it can produce a decent yield. So, the financial return on the wheat from organic/regenerative systems actually has to cover the years when it can’t be grown while the field is recovering and boosting itself preparing for the next sowing. This can be field peas or beans which are used as a nutritious livestock ration, but how about growing legumes for human consumption instead? Again, Hodmedod’s are pioneering in this regard, with homegrown pulses such as chickpeas, lentils and Carlin peas. I am definitely in the ‘less-but-better’ category when it comes to meat, so supplementing good-quality, locally-reared, grass-fed meat with protein from pulses is a fantastic way to reduce the cost per serving and increase the nutrition, meanwhile supporting good farming practise that benefits the soil, and those who look after it.

Another supplier of flours direct from the mill is Bakery Bits. There are small scale growers and millers such as Gilchesters Organics in Northumberland, Stoate’s in Dorset. Sharpham Park in Somerset are well known and their flours are available in supermarkets. British flour is softer than that made from European or American wheat, so the volume of your loaf may not be as dramatic given the lower gluten content, but perhaps we should change our expectations of what constitutes the perfect loaf in order to support what is right for our country’s growing conditions?

I would love to hear if anyone has tried some homegrown or locally milled flours, wherever you are in the world.

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