Monday, 26 September 2011

All grist to the mill

Today Tallboy and I ventured into Oxfordshire, to go and look round the place that makes the Half and Half bread flour which I love using. I'd spotted on the Wessex Mill website that mill tours were available, and I booked one up to coincide with our day off work. I'd already had the experience of a tour round the larger Shipton Mill, so had an idea what to expect, but this was a first for Tallboy.

We arrived at the mill just before our allotted time and were able to park outside easily. Stepping into the mill shop, we were greeted by an almost dizzying array of flours - I hadn't realised how extensive their range was. I introduced myself and Tallboy as the 11 o' clock tour and we were shepherded through to the back by Paul Munsey, the miller.

Paul started by giving us some history of the business, the mill and the family - all three heavily intertwined. He is a fourth generation miller, his great-grandfather having become a miller in Oxford as Victoria's reign was about to end. The original mill, an image of which is on the front of the flour bags, was in Mill Street, Oxford (opposite the train station) and sadly burned down in 1945. The business then relocated to an existing mill in Mill Street, Wantage (yep, there's a bit of a theme here) with the old damaged mill standing derelict until work started this year on converting it to living accommodation (with a nifty Archimedes' Screw arrangement in the water for the production of electricity). The current building in Wantage (next to the Old Mill) was brought into service in 1980, and is a fabulous warren of busy machinery, steep wooden staircases and multiple levels of activity.

Paul talked about different flours, grains, gluten levels and more about the milling process as we went around the mill, from where the grains are received into the process to the final bagging. He showed us the state of the grist before and after each step, so we had a graphic idea of what was happening and the changes between stages. Tallboy was particularly struck by the sieving cabinets, all suspended on bamboo and moving with a mesmeric action. We were also impressed to see old machinery still living a useful life (some of it had a really old-fashioned encased-in-wood vibe). Paul explained that the machinery they have runs at about half the speed of modern flour rollers, so it produces less heat within the grist.

The final stop was the lab, where the batches of grist are tested and catalogued on the basis of protein content. I'd not heard designations of varieties of wheat before, and was surprised at the rather romantic-sounding names - Gallant, Hereward, Solstice... I was enlightened about the '0' and '00' designation of Italian flour - I'd always assumed it was to do with the strength of the flour, but it's about the degree of processing and fineness of the grinding. Paul also touched on what's involved in getting the product out there to customers, and what lies behind choices they have made about who they supply.

We had a great time - it was fascinating to see the milling process happening in front of us, and to hear about it from someone for whom it's second nature. Paul was knowledgeable, welcomed questions, and was very open in sharing the business with interested customers. What had struck me about the Wessex Mill website was the page showing the grist map - tags show the location and name of the local farms which supply the mill with grain. The backs of the bags flour are printed with the source of the grain, too. It's clear that the mill has a close relationship and dialogue with its suppliers.

The tour lasted for just about an hour, and was very well worth the journey across country. It really makes a difference to see where and how the products you use are produced, and to experience the attitude and knowledge of the people who work there. I won't be able to use my Wessex Mill flour again without picturing the building in Wantage and hearing the mill noises in my head.

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