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I've recently acquired a flour mill. That is to say a machine which will, at the press of a switch, convert whole grains into flour.

It adds a whole new dimension to bread making. Anyone who regularly makes bread will tell you that flour goes stale. Organic and wholewheat flours, which have more oils in them go off more quickly than the processed white flours, in which most of the oils have been removed. That just-milled freshness might gradually fade in a few days or even a couple of weeks, but a loaf made with fresh flour tastes far better than one made with old flour. You might have to trust me on this one if you have never made your own bread. But those who regularly make bread will know all about the freshness of flour.

Grain, on the other hand does not go stale. Ever since mankind moved from being a hunter-gatherer to a farmer, people have had to store a year's worth of grain to keep the family in food from one harvest to the next. There are tales of grain found in Roman or Egyptian times, being milled to make fresh bread.

Through the millennia, farmers have taken their wheat to the miller to grind it down into flour. The image of the village miller is a strong one: The wind- or water-mill with its huge burr stone millstones and the miller with thick biceps swinging the stones into place, before pouring the grain into the middle of the stones and then applying sacks to the chute where fresh flour emerges is burned into the minds of many of us through movies, historical docudramas and other cultural prompts.

In the modern world, that process has become industrialised to the point where we lose the healthiest, most fibrous parts of the grain.

Wheat berries — the grain with all the husks and chaff removed — are a couple of millimetres big, and they are made up of three basic parts. The bran layer on the outside; the germ, which is the embryonic new plant and the endosperm, which is the starch and proteins needed to feed the plant in the days immediately after germination, before it gets its own energy from photosynthesis.

Modern wheat flour is crushed using rollers. Then most of the fibrous stuff — that is the bran and the wheatgerm — is separated out with sieves and other systems, leaving just the endosperm — the starch-rich interior of the grain. That endosperm is further crushed into flour. Finally, the remaining mixture is bleached to make it a pretty white colour.

The fibrous outer layers are then sold as animal feed. Alternatively, and I've never been able to understand this, processed white flour is eventually mixed with a percentage of the bran to make the 'whole grain' and 'brown' flour which is sold in shops. Brown flour tends to mean just the wheatgerm has been added, while wholegrain means that some bran is in there as well.

Oils, which can go rancid and which give the fresh flour much of its flavour reside in the bran and the germ, and to a lesser extent the endosperm. Commercial white flour mills deliberately remove these oils by use of chemicals, in order to give the flour a longer shelf life.

A second process used by the commercial flour mills is bleaching. It's what it sounds like. Fresh-milled flour has some carotenoid pigments, which give the flour an off-white or yellow colour. Flour makers think that consumers believe (incorrectly) that proper flour should be a pure white colour. In order to deliver the pure white appearance, they use commercial food-contact bleaches to oxidise the yellow pigments to white.

As with much modern food production, a range of chemicals is used to deliver better colour, longer shelf life, higher (or lower) protein content. I'm not going to get too technical on you here, but if you are interested, there is a lot more information here.

There are still artisan mills around which use large stone grinding wheels to mill the grain into flour. None of them, however can match home-milled flour for freshness and flavour.

Schnitzer Pico mill

If you search the web, you will find a few grain mills for sale. They are not particularly common, but they can be found. James, who sold mine to me now has a regular customer for his grain.

Expect to pay at least £200 / €300 / $400 or so for an electric mill and slightly less for a hand-powered mill.

The unit I have is made by the German company Schnitzer. You can see a picture of it here (the top image).

The Pico is the smallest unit that Schnitzer makes. It grinds a kilo of flour in 10 minutes or so, and sits well on the kitchen counter-top.

The flour does not touch any metal parts. The grain goes into a wooden hopper, which feeds into the centre of two synthetic granite grinding wheels. These spin relatively fast, and disgorge into a chamber made of high-density polyethylene. That feeds into a wooden spout, and the milled flour falls into a bowl which you can place underneath the spout.

The flour emerges warm to the touch. This highlights one aspect of the mill that newcomers might not think about. In order to get the physical size size of the mill down to a good counter-top size and maintain the throughput, the mill wheels spin fairly fast. This leads to some heating by mechanical work.

In more expensive mills, the grinding wheels are larger, but spin much more slowly. Slower wheels leads to lower heat and this retains more of the volatile oils and other nutrients. Also, and this is important, If the flour gets too hot, then the proteins might start to cook. That would result in a gummed-up mill, which would not be good.

As with most mills, there is an adjustment which brings the mill wheels closer together or further apart, resulting in fine or coarse flour, depending on the setting. In practice, if you are used to machine-made flour, even the finest setting is significantly coarser than commercial flours. At first this can be irritating, but after a couple of months, I am now used to using the slightly coarser flour from my mill.

Different grains

I've been experimenting with different types of grain. James sells wheat, oats, spelt, rye and other types. Each comes in a 10kg drum. My current recipe uses roughly three parts wheat, two parts rye and one part spelt. The spelt seems to compensate for the reduced gluten content of the rye grain, but if I add a dough improver, that helps even more.

The commercial, bulk wholesale rate for wheat is currently around £100/tonne, down from the peak of £200 in mid-2008. I am paying about £1/kg, so five to 10 times the bulk commodity price. In exchange for this premium, I get organic wheat in manageable quantities. On top of that, I get organic wholewheat flour whenever I want it, in the precise quantities I need, at a price roughly half the going rate at a farmer's market, or specialist store. Above all, I know that the flour is completely fresh, as I mill it myself a few minutes before making the dough.

I have to say that it is not easy to find whole grain in decent quantities. James sells rye and wheat at a little under £1/kg and spelt at twice that. But I can't find another regular supplier. I guess I just have to rely that James will continue to be in business for some time to come. Otherwise that investment in a mill is going to look a bit silly.

it is surprising how liberating it is to be able to take a certain weight of grain and convert that to flour. I no longer have to rely on buying flour in pre-weighed bags and making dough in multiples of 1 or 1.5 kg. I can now make as much or as little as I like. I keep a small amount of spelt flour on one side, used to flour the work surfaces as I mix the dough, but apart from that, I keep very little flour on hand, as it is so easy to mill a new batch ready for baking.

If you want recipes for making bread, probably best to go to Baking bread or bread recipes.

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