Once upon on a time in Britain, we grew our own grain, milled it locally, and used the flour to make bread in bakeries and village ovens across the land. These days, most of the flour we use for real bread* comes from North America and Central Asia. I’ve made bread with more locally grown flour before but never with locally grown flour made from landrace heritage wheat. So I was interested to hear from Michael Hanson of The Hearth pizzeria and bakehouse in Lewes, East Sussex (which recently featured in Dan Saladino’s Food Programme show about pizza) that he was using locally grown grain to make flour for their products.
Michael has been using heritage grains in Hearth products for a while now. He’s friends with John Letts, a Canadian archaeobotanist and key figure in a movement to try and restore a diverse bank of British landrace grain varieties. Letts looked at the grains found in thatched roofs to learn what varieties were farmed around Britain, as the straw used in places dated back to Norman times. Michael now has a small crop of about 20 acres (8 hectares) of wheat, rye and barley at South Farm at Rodmell, just outside Lewes, utilising seed from Letts and the farming expertise of the owners, the Wetterns.
Ancient locals and micro-malting
Michael refers to the crop as a Sussex landrace mix including “maybe 40 or so varieties [of wheat], ditto the barley and rye, ancient varieties.” Michael’s also hoping to start a “micro-malting” operation from his base in the old Lewes bus depot. It’s certainly exciting – at least for people like me who are bakers, and into food provenance and history. Michael says they’re now using flour ground from the grain for the bread they sell in the Hearth bakehouse, as well as combining it with strong white flour to make the dough for the pizzeria. There can’t be many bakeries or pizzerias in Britain that can say that.
It’s not exactly milled locally, being transported to Offley Watermill in Staffordshire. There are several working wind and watermills more local to Lewes, such as Ashcombe Mill near Kingston, or the watermill at Michelham Priory, or even the mill at Jimmy Page’s old house, Plumpton Place, but Offley offers expertise from the Howells, who have been milling in Stafford since 1840 and at this location since 1943. Michael said they’re “seventh generation millers”. He’s yet to find anyone with such qualifications locally. Incredible really, considering, again, about 150 years ago, every town and village had numerous mills.
Low protein challenge
But what is the flour – stoneground, about 80% extraction – like to work with? Well, I must admit, I found it challenging. Some of today’s most respected bakers, like Chad Robertson of Tartine in San Francisco say, work wonders with ancient grains. But this whole question of making light, open-crust breads with low protein flours is tricky. As we’ve been getting much of our bread wheat in Britain from North American and Central Asia the past 150 years or so, our baking tradition has markedly changed. Due to climactic factors, wheats grown in Britain generally produced lower protein flours, “soft”. These foreign flours we’ve been using are from higher protein, “hard” wheat, and our baking has become dependent on it, has been shaped by it.
When we learn to bake in Britain these days we’re told you need the high protein flours, so you can develop the gluten (gliadin and glutenin proteins) to give it structure. High protein flours can contain as much 15%, whereas lower protein flours (plain or all-purpose) generally contain around 10%. Tom, the baker at the Hearth bakehouse, reckons the Rodmell flour could be as low as 8% protein.
Other countries, such as Italy, haven’t become so dependent on high protein flours. During my years in Rome I’d buy various farro flours from the farmers markets and made some very tasty breads with them, but they were mostly dense affairs. These days I do mostly use a mix of strong white, likely grown in Central Asia but stoneground in Dorset by Stoates, and spelt flours. Using Michael’s flour reminded me of my experiments in Italy with farro flours grown by umpteenth generation contadini (loosely, “peasants”) in the hills of Lazio. The 100% Rodmell flour bread I made (65% hydration, basic bulk fermentation) was very tasty, with a sweet, nutty flavour, but it was a dense proposition. The kids didn’t turn their noses up, but it was a hearty meal in itself (a valuable quality for peasants of old).
My second attempt used 40% Michael’s flour, 60% Stoates strong white, and it’s great. Relatively open but even grain. This is perfect for the kids’ toast. Much as I love the wildly uneven, massively open grain you find in hip “artisan” breads and ciabatta say (ie high hydration dough breads), it’s not ideal for toast! Anyway, I reckon I could increase the mix to 50/50 with Michael’s flour. That’ll be my next test.
In the meantime, it’s been wonderful to be part of this experiment to restore some Sussex landrace grain. Anyone else who fancies trying it, visit The Hearth in Lewes! Or if you’re a landowner, get in touch about growing your own grain!
* That used in industrial pap is different matter. It’s an interesting story I’ve touched on before, but as pap – indigestible pseudo-bread made with the Chorleywood process – is such an execrable product I’m not talking about it again here.