In the last year, baking has been our entertainment and salvation, and we’ve become more adventurous, seeking out lesser-known flours made with heritage grains. Here, we explore the positive impact our collective baking bug has had on Britain’s artisan flour makers.
For a long time, my understanding of flour comprised four types: plain, wholemeal, bread and self-raising. Then, lockdown hit. Suddenly, an ingredient I’d taken for granted was the most sought-after staple. ‘People went on a journey,’ says John Lister, founder and CEO of Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire, which saw a phenomenal increase in sales right across its range of flours as we all baked banana bread and sourdough and our confidence grew.
Environmental and health benefits
Standard wheat is dependent on pesticides and fertilisers, as it’s been bred with a shortened stem that cannot grow tall enough to shade out weeds, and has lost the protective husk for its kernels. The shallow roots also make arable soils more prone to flooding, and the widespread use of chemicals is stripping the soil of organic matter and reducing biodiversity.
Research is ongoing into how the widespread use of these chemicals may be increasing wheat allergies and intolerances. This correlation is driving interest in heritage wheat varieties, which have deeper roots and can be grown without chemicals on farms that adopt regenerative natural practices. Many heritage wheats ‘are naturally gluten-free or have a more digestible structure of gluten,’ says our health editor, Tracey Raye. ‘That’s helpful for people following special diets. A flour that’s naturally free from, or lower, in gluten will invariably be higher in nutrients and fibres than one that’s been processed to remove the gluten.’ Additionally, the deeper roots of heritage wheats draw more minerals up into the plant, enriching its nutritional content.
How is it processed?
The golden rule is the less processing, the better, which is why the renewed interest in heritage grains has come hand-in-hand with a resurgence in traditional stone milling.
‘Stone milling means the wholegrain is ground in one process, so its goodness is retained and imparts a lovely, nutty flavour,’ says Lister, who pioneered the return to stone milling in 1979. By way of contrast, in modern mills, steel rollers strip the bran and wheatgerm from the grain, leaving only the white endosperm for grinding. Brown and wholemeal flours undergo the same process, but are slightly healthier as some of the extracted bran is added back in.
‘Stoneground flour makes a big difference when it comes to the flavour of your bread. It also activates a sourdough starter more quickly because there's more natural yeasts present,’ says our resident sourdough expert, Barney Desmazery. ‘Once activated, the yeast has more to feed on, so can swiftly get on with fermenting.’
Lizzie Parle, head baker at E5 Bakehouse in Hackney, London, explains, ‘The starch and gluten you need for baking is in the endosperm, but the nutrients and flavour are in the bran and wheatgerm.’ She, and her team, started their baking journey ‘believing flour is just flour. But, the more we learned about baking and sourdough, the more we realised how much flour and grains vary.’ Their quest was simple: ‘We wanted to make the simplest, most delicious sourdough. The bread we bake is about celebrating the flavour of flour.’
How to use it
The best flavour comes from flour that’s been freshly milled, which is why tabletop mills are also taking off. ‘It’s like coffee – as soon as you mill it, it starts oxidising,’ says Parle, who mills for E5 in a bespoke stone mill next to the bakery. ‘A tabletop mill opens up a world of flavours and means you can support your local grain farmer.’ But, you don’t need to go as far as procuring your own farmer and stone mill to reap the rewards of heritage grain.
You don’t even need to be an expert baker. Before August last year, economist Susie Symes had never baked a single loaf. ‘Until then, I’d made a cake maybe once a decade,’ she says. Her lockdown search for something ‘fun, calm and sustaining’ led her to baking bread, and from there, curiosity prompted experimention with rye and spelt flours in her weekly sourdough boule. ‘They add depth of flavour,’ she says.
Summer Ryland, a freelance editor and enthusiastic home baker, reports a similar experience: ‘I reached for a bag of spelt flour one day in a bid to incorporate more interesting flours into my bakes, and quickly realised I love the pleasing chew and subtle nuttiness.’
Savour the flavour
Not every flour has a pronounced flavour. While ancient varieties – einkorn, emmer and spelt – are distinct in taste, the flavour notes of more recent heritage grains, which are descended from them, are less discernible. British heritage grains have wonderful names – April Bearded, Red Fife and Devon Orange Blue Rough Chaff, to name just a few – ‘but the differences between them are nuanced, like that of grapes from the same vineyard,’ explains Shipton Mill’s John Lister. What draws him and his customers toward these grains is their environmental credentials and the stories and people behind them.
‘In some remote areas in Europe, you’ll find farmers who are still growing old heritage grains, so we’ve started stocking them on rotation,’ he continues. ‘Most recently, we’ve brought over Solina and Faragolla from the Abruzzi Apennines in Italy – medieval varieties grown on small family farms in the mountains.’
Lister’s comparison with wine is apt. Many of the bakers and millers I speak to hope flour will follow in the footsteps of cheese, wine and beer in becoming slower, more natural and more environmentally conscious. As Parle points out, ‘the reason you get such rich flavours from old vines and organic vineyards is partly because the vines have longer roots to dig deep into the soil and bring up trace minerals, as well as more time to do so. Those minerals are concentrated in a smaller amount of fruit.’
‘I love to incorporate ancient grains into my general baking,’ says Desmazery. ‘Rye flour makes cookies really chewy, and gives bun doughs more complexity. Spelt flour gives savoury pastries a nutty flavour.’
The best way to incorporate heritage grains into your daily bakes is through experimentation: add them gradually to plain flour and increase the proportions as you feel comfortable. ‘Ancient grain flours are different to work with as they have a lower gluten content, but if you simply swap them for 20 per cent of the wheat flour in a recipe, you still get the flavour without having to change the recipe too much,’ Desmazery adds.
Anna Higham, executive pastry chef at the River Café in west London, recommends starting with pancakes. ‘They’re a brilliant way to experiment and see how different flours react – they’re a good base for detecting the different flavours and textures.’
‘We’ve become so accustomed to using strong, stable, high-gluten flour from Canada or Kazakhstan,’ says Rosy Benson of Field Bakery, a farm-based bakery in Somerset. Heritage grains demands ‘a bit more attention,’ she says. ‘Feel how the flour absorbs the water and look for signs of fermentation. It’s more trial and error, but that’s how it should be.’
What are heritage grains?
Historic wheats were once abandoned in favour of modern ones, but they’re now back in our kitchens.
The supermarkets were low on flour, so we looked to the smaller millers. Once there, we began to dig deeper into flours from different places, plants and even time periods, like einkorn, spelt, emmer, rye and Khorasan.
These varieties are known as ‘heritage grains’, or ‘wheat varieties that predate the development and mass distribution of modern wheat in the 1950s,’ says Lister. Modern wheat – what’s behind most of the flour you see today – is quite different from its forebears, with shallow roots, short stems and husk-free kernels to enable fast growth and easy harvesting. It’s now grown all over the world.
‘The arguments in its favour at the time were that it directed more energy into the grain, rather than a long stem and roots, so it yielded more, faster,’ says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy. ‘Yet, creating a universal grain stock suited the big seed companies and chemical manufacturers more than it did local farmers, who previously grew grains that had evolved to suit their area, and did not have to pay for seeds.’
8 flours to use in your bakes
1. Organic Bakers Blend spelt flour, £3.75 (1kg), sharphampark.com
Sharpham Park is the best-known producer of spelt cereal, pasta and flour in the UK. Its light, nutty spelt is organic and grown regeneratively without fertilisers or pesticides, with a view to sustaining the land’s wildlife. Baker’s Blend is as perfect for bread as it is cakes and pastries.
2. 100% einkorn flour, £3.75 (1.5kg), gilchesters.com
Gilchesters is a mill and farm in one, growing grains alongside livestock. Einkorn is one of the earliest cultivated varieties, and adds depth to bakes along with the health benefits of heritage wheat.
3. Wakelyns YQ wheat flour organic, £2.19 (1.5kg), hodmedods.co.uk
In 2002, professor Martin Wolfe crossed 20 distinct wheat varieties to create hybrids with the quality and resilience of heritage and the high yield of modern. These were mixed and sown together to form a population with a high degree of genetic diversity. The resulting flour has great texture, flavour and versatility. Its hybrid qualities make it easier to work with than ‘pure’ heritage grains.
4. Organic barley flour, £1.65 (750g), shipton-mill.com
One of the earliest cultivated grains, barley flour has a mild, slightly nutty flavour. Its low gluten content means it won’t rise in the same way as wheat. It can be used in pancakes, or cakes and breads where you can replace 50 per cent of the wheat flour with it.
5. Organic wholemeal rye flour, £2 (1kg), dovesfarm.co.uk
The naturally low gluten content of rye results in rather a dense loaf, if not blended with wheat flour. But, its flavour is second to none – tangy and earthy, it’s perfect for close-textured breads, cakes and biscuits.
6. Balcaskie Landrace organic wholemeal wheat flour, £3.20 (1.5kg), scotlandthebread.org
This is a blend of heritage varieties – Rouge d’Ecosse, Golden Drop and Hunter’s – and is as versatile as it is flavoursome and nutritious. Suitable for sourdough, pastries and cakes.
7. Oatmeal of Alford gluten-free oat flour, £3.20 (500g), realfoods.co.uk
This flour is completely free from wheat contamination – an important consideration for those with allergies. It’s a good substitute for ground almonds, and creates great texture in cookies and breads.
8. 100% wholemeal flour (pricing on request), y-felin.com
Welsh for ‘the mill’, Y Felin is one of the last working water mills in Wales, making stoneground flour and oats sourced as locally as possible. The millpond is also home to many species of waterfowl.