Journeying into the world of milling

As you may know, we at e5 are on a mission to use 100% UK grown organic flour.  Surprisingly, such a thing is extremely hard to find, especially in the quantity, 2 tonnes a week, that we need.  So 2 years ago we brought an a 70 cm Tyroll stone mill in order to mill grain and make our own flour.  These past 2 years have been a big adventure.  The Tyrol mill has a composite stone e.g. cement, with chips of an extremely hard volcanic rock embedded into them.  Relying on the weight of the rotating top stone to crush the grains, the abrasive surface rips, shreds and crushes the berry, before it is passed into the sifting chamber.  Variously sized screens, in the range of 100 micron up 1140 micron can be selected to give different grades of flour.


Fresh, stoneground flour is higher in nutrients and fibre than roller milled flour, on account of the germ and parts of the bran entering the flour.  This reduces shelf life as the oils can oxidise, but used fresh the flour creates dough that expounds with life and flavour.


Millers talk about extraction rates, meaning the proportion of white flour from the endosperm that is extracted through the sieves from the whole grain.  With the Tyroll mill the bran is splintered by the stones and consequently more small pieces pass through even a fine screen making, hence the extraction rate can become misleading.  From the baking perspective, a mill which reduces the bran to fine pieces can be an advantage when making wholemeal bread, but for whiter breads the bran cuts the gluten meaning the bread will be flatter and denser, not the result we often want to achieve.


Andy Forbes of Brockwell Bake had begun to take an interest in our milling.  For almost a decade Andy had been researching heritage varieties of wheat, and milling his own wheat to use in his doughs.  Andy had been using a French mill of the design developed in the 1970’s by the Astrier brothers.  As Andy’s requirements changed his mill became available and we agreed to rent it from him.  There were a number of benefits to this style of mill; 


1. It has granite stones from quarries in Tarn near Toulouse.  The top granite stone is forced down under pressure, using a simple spring and crank mechanism.  The bran layer is peeled off the berry in large chunks as is passes from the centre of the stone towards the edge, finally on the outer edge of the stone the exposed endosperm  is ground before being passed to a long rotating screen.  This results in a higher extraction whiter flour


2. From a  practical perspective the Astrier mill is favourable, in contrast to the Tyroll mill where bags are filled, and manually replaced, the Astrier can fill multiple bags.  The set up we have now allows 7 bags to fill with approximately 140kg in total of flour. This means the mill can run untended for around 12 hours.


Although we have considered retrofitting our Tyroll mill with a similar sack feed mechanism we have decided that we will be better investing in a new Astrier mill for the bakehouse.  Andy’s mill has a 50cm stone, allowing us to mill at most 1 tonne of grains, or 800kg of flour per week.  It’s a fine amount, but not quite enough for us.


We had identified Moulins des bons Sens a manufacturer near Toulouse, and so on the week before Christmas Eyal, Ed and myself took an early flight.  We were met at the airport by Greg Barres, an ex e5 baker who’s moved home to open his own micro bakery at his parents farm, and who was happy to drive us around.  


Bernard’s workshop could conservatively be described as draughty, it was bitingly cold as we admired hoppers made from chestnut, large slabs of granite, grinders for cutting the grooves out of the stone using simple chipboard forms as guides, creating the unconventional spiralling design he prefers.


“Let’s go” Bernard says, charging down the rural roads, following his Merc we soon arrive the farm and bakery of Tomas, a young boulanger paysan.  To qualify as a baker in France is fraught with red tape, requires a long period of study and often involves ties to a large mill.   This, plus a philosophical appreciation of a more ecological, almost spiritual appreciation of the role of bakers, has seen a torrent of new bakers belonging to the boulanger paysan movement, which requires that you grown, mill and bake your bread, and usually in a wood fired oven.  These are the trailblazers of the baking world.  Tomas, in his early 30’s has taken oven his grandparents farm and commandeered part of the barn into a bakery with an amazing wood fired oven and an Astrier style mill, built by Bernard in a neighbouring room.  Tomas has been growing several different varieties, some that have been grown in the Toulouse region for over 100 years.  He has constructed breeze block silos in the barn to hold his grain, adapted to allow air to be blown up into them to ensure no moisture builds up, putting the wheat at risk of mould.  It should be stored at 13% moisture, although in the 24 hours before milling it is beneficial to bring the moisture content back up to 16%, encouraging better separation of bran from endosperm.  A very clean cement mixture was on hand, by the mill, for Tomas to mix the water in.


We also visited Michel who has been farming wheat and beef cattle for more than 30 years, and milling as long.  He worked with the Astrier brothers to build his own mill, and was proud to show us the mill which has been a workhorse for 30 years.  “It’s made me a lot of money” he said proudly, patting the box of the sieving chamber.  It’s not often you meet a happy farmer who feels he’s doing alright.  Michel was also growing ancient varieties and appreciated the requirements of bakers so would mix certain wheats in for flavour and others for strength.


We were impressed on our short trip to France by the diversity and availability of different wheat varieties, and the number of farmer millers, or miller bakers, or a combination of the three.


We are excited to place an order for a mill soon, and to continue to learn about the intricacies of milling and develop more links with farms growing diverse varieties.


Ben Mackinnon – e5 Founder

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