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.
20 responses to “Local grain, local bread”
How interesting. I fancy growing grain, but life is too busy at the moment for such things and then I might grow enough for one or two loaves. I use Pimhill when I can get hold of it. They are a local farm to here that grow their own grain and mill it, but I don’t know what sort of wheat they grow. I really should do some research.
I don’t know them. Shall investigate. It’s likely they use modern grain varieties simply as that’s what predominantly available.
Excellent news! Is the flour easy to source?
I don’t think they’re producing enough to sell much of it. I just hope more people start growing older, landrace varieties so it becomes more accessible.
Really interesting. Can you share who you buy farro from in Rome? I have a source but would like to try others too. For years I baked regularly and want to get back into it after a lengthy pause. Never get tired of bread baking and experimenting with grains and flours. I grind the grain. My kids grew up with my bread and the bread from the wood oven forno bakers in the village.
I bought it from farmers markets, or the shop at Citta dell’altra economia, in the Ex-Mattatoio in Testaccio. Also from health food shops in Testaccio, Trastevere and Marconi.
Thanks, will try Testaccio. The health food shops I use are charging fantasy prices per kilo of grain or flour and my previous option of bulk buying grain economically (20+ kilos of wheat, rye, barley) from an Italian Demeter source no longer exists since they were taken over by a major Italian health food chain. Sadly.
Are you in Italy, Rome, Shonagh?
Really interesting. Can you share who you buy farro from in Rome? Or other grain? I have a source but would like to try others too. For years I baked regularly and want to get back into it after a lengthy pause. Never get tired of bread baking and experimenting with grains and flours. I grind the grain. My kids grew up with my bread and the bread from the wood oven forno bakers in the village.
We’ll be in London (first time) next April–I just googled how far etc. to Lewes. Would this bread be worth a 90 minute train ride? I’d say heck yeah it would 🙂 I love good bread and it is extremely difficult to find in Hawaii–we have lots of other great foods but bread? Not so much. It’s great to hear about this whole effort to use these grains, bravo to you and all involved.
Lewes is a cool town but sadly the trains are a shambles at the moment!
Being at the very beginning of my bread making I gobble up all your info on flours, protein levels etc. And yes, I understand the challenge, bake something that both we and the kids will like. I just found out about a local mill that has re-opened in Montefiascone and are milling all kinds of flours – hope o get there soon. Ciao to all!
That’s exciting. What kind of mill is it Alice? Water mill?
Good to have you back again, Daddy Danny! I am far too lazy to find out this stuff for myself, and am amazed at your capacity to research, condense and write so vividly, given all the other adventures you are having. The kids are stuffed full of goodness thanks to your efforts, even if the main delivery mechanism is pasta and bread at the moment.
Looks amazingly delicious!
Yes, I feel all is well with the world if I have your blog to read and many of my friends feel the same. Your children are SO LUCKY to have all this wonderful natural food. When I think of the rubbish I fed you back in the times………… But have to plead ignorance I suppose.
The stuff about low protein flour is interesting. I baked with a Turkish lady in North Cyprus who always uses ordinary plain flour for her bread.
Yes, and I’m sure she got great results. Wish I had that skill!
Have you tried khorasan/kamut flour? It is an ancient grain with a nice nutty flavour, and is a pleasure to use – it sticks to itself but not as much as other grains to the container it is in. I sometimes combine it with spelt, depending on what is in the cupboard. Makes a delicious healthy nut and dried fruit bread – no sugar needed, just water/yeast/flour/nuts/dried fruit/walnut oil/cinnamon.
Yes, I’ve tried it. Not got any just now though, among the dozen or so flour types in the cupboard!