Flour. Alone, it’s not exactly the most thrilling of substances, but the multitude of things you make make with it is astounding. I realised I knew very little about it, and upon discovering Shipton Mill was nearby, I decided to pay them a visit for a quick flour education.

Unsurprisingly for this winter, it’s raining when I arrive at the mill, a beautiful old building hiding at the end of an unremarkable looking lane. Tom offers me refuge in his office, and makes me a cup of tea. We dive straight in to the history of the mill. “We’re essentially a thousand years old; we’re mentioned in the Doomsday book!” Tom tells me with a smile. He dives into anecdotal tales of fights between the abbot and the miller, and story of how French prisoners of war were used to re-channel to river to flow directly to the mill. The mill became derelict in 1954, following the movement of mills closer to population centres, and the introduction of the Chorley bread process. 

Brought back into life in the late 70’s, “It was all derelict,” Tom explains. “The mill race was all choked with trees, the drive and yard were just a forest, and there was no roof or ceiling on the building.” The owner restored it, opting not to return to the water-wheel original power source, but installing both stone and roller mills in the building. I ask what the difference is, and Tom brings me up to speed. “Stone ground is basically the simplest form of food processing. You have the top stone which is a spinning stone or running stone, with an eye in the middle. You drop the grain in, and by the time it gets to the edge, that’s it; stone ground wholemeal flour. It tends to be coarser, make a denser loaf and be less refined.” He pauses before shifting to roller milling. “Basically it’s spinning cylinders of steel with differing sizes of flutes or ridges on them, which allows you to scrape the white or the endosperm off the bran outer husk, and be much more efficient at it. By using differing grades of coarseness of roller, you get finer and more complete extraction. If you want to make really good clean white flour, you need to use a roller mill. It’s very predictable and consistent.” . Tom explains they have a second mill in Frampton-on-Severn, about 20 minutes away, which does purely roller milling. 

I ask what the production is of each. “On the stones, we might do 1-1.5 tonnes a day,” he begins, “On the roller mills we might do 10-15 tonnes an hour.” And the nutritional difference? “Some people like the idea of stone grinding because they think it’s more elemental, and therefore less damaging. Actually it’s not necessarily true; it depends how you mill. You can mill with modern equipment in a very sympathetic manner.” As a result, they use both the stones and the roller mill to make wholemeal flour. “If you put a tonne of grain in, you get a tonne of flour because it’s the whole grain. When you mill white flour, you get 800kg for every tonne. Therefore you want to make sure you get every last bit of white you can to maximise your efficiency.”

We move on to the different types of flour and grains they mill. “We have an amazing product portfolio,” he tells me. “Something like 126 stock-keeping units. Different protein levels, different types of grain, the organic, the conventional. For us, we can mill 5 tonnes, then change over and do 5 tonnes of something different. It means we can offer a degree of specialisation that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Especially when you’re looking at heritage grains like Emmer and Einkorn and Spelt.”

We chat for a while about these grains. “They are old grains, and hark back to a time when life was more simple and hybridisation, let alone genetic modification, didn’t exist. It also means for a lot of people, heritage wheats are less likely to cause allergic reactions that people associate with modern wheat. Some of them have a different chromosome structure that has been hybridised out, and if they’ve got diploids or triploids will depend if they trigger the same reaction.” He talks further about wheat and gluten intolerances. “We get lots of people who come to the mill to buy flour who say they’ve been wheat intolerant in the past, but now they make their own bread at home with our flour, they don’t have a reaction any longer.”

We move on to the subject of British wheat. “Look at the English summer,” he starts. “It starts in April, it’s a bit cool, it’s a bit warm, it’s a bit wet. You get this lovely long gentle growing season. So English wheats tend to be quite large, quite yellow, quite soft. The protein levels are quite low, but it makes great cake flour. In Canada, it’s bloody cold, then it’s bloody hot, then it’s bloody cold. The wheat doesn’t have a huge amount of time. So Canadian wheats tend to be small, very hard, very high protein level, which means more gluten. The perception is that you have to have strong flour with a high protein level to make good bread. But if you have the magic ingredient, called time, you can make really good bread with any flour.” Talk turns inevitably to sourdough (as any conversation about bread does with me). “I’ll go home today, Friday, and I’ll start makinga loaf of bread,” he tells me. “I’ll cook it on Sunday morning for breakfast. It’ll take a day and a half, but the total time I spent with the loaf is about 5 or 10 minutes. A lot of people think it’s really complicated to make bread, but it’s just simple rules.”

Upon finishing my cup of tea, we head off for a tour of the mill, starting in a small room where tests are carried out on the wheat when it arrives, and the flour when it’s milled. When milling, they first work out what kind of flour they want to make. To make a 12% protein flour, if they’re lucky they might have 12% grain. If not, they will mix a combination of grains together to form what’s known as a ‘grist’.

We step into the main part of the mill, a beautiful multi-layer building full of machinery that you have to step round and climb past as your weave your way through the process. There’s a regular hum and rhythm to the sound, each machine contributing a different tone or noise to the orchestra. Two floors up, Tom lifts up a hatch to show me the first step; the two silos where the wheat is stored. “In the old days, the wheat would have been winched up through these trap doors in sacks,” he tells me, pointing at the old trap doors in the middle of the floor. “But now it’s moved around either by suction or elevators,” he finishes, opening a door so I can see the tiny elevator moving. “When the grain comes in it’s got flowers and thistles and leaves and stones in it. So it goes in the middle of a machine and air is blown through, which makes the leaves and feathers go to the top and the stones to the bottom.”

We look at the stone mill first, and Tom lifts off the lid so I can see the stones in action. “The bed-stone is fixed, and the running stone moves,” Tom explains. “They’re slightly convex and concave and you’ve got to have them absolutely perfect. In the old days, this was done by a millwright who’d chip away and do it by eye”. He goes on to explain that the stones are actually made in multiple pieces, and if a piece breaks, a new piece can be cut to fit and screwed in. I’m fascinated as I watch the wheat grains drop into the centre of the stones, and the coarse beautiful flour that comes out at the edge, ready for bagging.

We move over to the roller mills. It comes in at one end, is milled, then sent upstairs to be sieved. “There’s a cylinder of silk, and a paddle which throws the milled product against the silk stocking. The flour goes through it, and the big chunky stuff comes back down to be milled again.”  This happens several times, and each of the mills has finer gaps (“The last one is almost shiny”), to try to extract the last bit of white. 

We stop and pause, watching the mills at work. “All this is to make white flour,” Tom points out, gesturing towards the roller mills and sieves above. But he points out there’s no waste; the bran that’s sieved off is sold off as animal feed, sometimes back to the same farmers who sell their wheat to the mill. 

On our way out of the mill, we stop in the packing room, where huge sacks of flour are stacked up, and shelves are bulging with brown bags of the more unusual types. They sell 48 different types of flour through their website, meaning the public has access to a much larger range than you’d find anywhere else. 

“On our packaging, it’s called the making of something magnificent, because at the end of the day it’s flour. But you can make the most amazing things with it; breads, cakes, pastries… It empowers people to make brilliant things.”