Gilchester’s Organic Farm Visit
As the sun rose over east London a small group of us (four two-legged, one four-legged) left e5 Bakehouse to begin a journey that would take us just south of the Anglo-Scottish border and back in one day.
Our brief excursion could be described as a pilgrimage of sorts. Our destination; Gilchester’s Organic Farm, Northumberland, where Andrew and Billie Wilkinson are growing and milling some of what we consider to be the best quality grains available in the UK. With the flour from Gilchester’s giving rise to many of our most-loved breads ( the heritage wholemeal, fruit loaf, Gilchester buns and most recently, our bread sticks ), we wanted to learn more about Andrew and Billie’s important work with heritage varieties of wheat and what it’s like to grow in the unpredictable climate of the UK.
Upon picking us up from Newcastle train station, we immediately began to bombard Andrew with a raft scientific questions. Possessing a PHD in wheat genetics, luckily he was well-used to explaining the intricacies of grain. We touched on phytic acid, and the importance of slow fermentation in releasing the nutrients held in flour and making them digestible. The subjects of nutrition and fermentation were to crop up throughout the day, between us we made good use of Andrew’s formidable intellect and patience…
Arriving at the farm, we received the warmest welcome possible from Billie, who supplied us with much-needed coffee and muffins warm from the Aga. The farm is where the family live and work, and raising children in a chemical and pesticide-free environment was crucial to the Wilkinsons. The farm utilises age-old practices, and employs an animal husbandry program rotating fields of wheat for grazing of rare breed cattle. They are also committed to reinstating hedgerows to promote wildlife. However, farming these lands is immensely unpredictable, and the weather over the last few years has not been kind to Gilchester’s, resulting in severe flooding and bad harvests. Happily though, with a good harvest this year conditions are also looking favourable for a good crop next year.
One of Andrew’s areas of expertise is in older varieties of wheat that predate the introduction of agro-chemicals, pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Modern varieties of wheat are bred for a higher yield, and ease of harvest, and due to legislation there are only few companies and varieties which can be legally sold which means the genetic diversity is significantly less than historically when farmers held back seed from previous years sharing and selling their seed through an unregulated market system.
Andrew’s wheat is selected from Swiss seed banks and grows at over twice the height of the modern varieties This also means it has deep root systems which draw up more minerals and nutrients from the soil than modern varieties which has a favourable impact on flavour.
In the barn where he mills, Andrew combines the skill of the artisan combined with the efficiency of modern machinery to get the very best from his wheat. The grains are thoroughly cleaned before being milled on volcanic Naxos stone. Andrew informs us that the stone mill is an inherently cold extraction process that causes minimal damage to the vitamins and essential oils present in the grains.
His methods produce some of the finest and most consistent wholemeal we have come across at the Bakehouse. A testament to his experience and his finely-tuned ear. The milling equipment, cutting edge and industrial though it is, is also incredibly attractive and artisanal in appearance being crafted of pale wood. We commented that in no other industry had we seen such high-tech machinery that looks this beautiful.
Our day ended with a walk lit by the waning afternoon sun through stubble from this year’s harvest to a field beginning to sprout with next summer’s spelt crop. To see the farm for ourselves, and all the hard work and care that goes into producing the flour we receive was a real privilege, and we hope Gilchester’s grains become more and more integral to our work at the Bakehouse.