I was recently given a tour of the Allied Bakeries flour mill inside the port of Tilbury in Essex to see how wheat was turned into flour to produce all those Kingsmill and Allinson loaves you see on the shelves in shops.
If I had an image of a flour mill in my mind, then it was probably one of large silver vats standing in rooms coated with white dust and lots of people in white coats walking around. Or it was of a building by a stream with a water wheel turning around. To be honest, I had never given a second though to flour mills when I bought a loaf of bread.
When I entered the mill with Phil, the miller and site manager, I was greeted with the sight of all sorts of strange looking machines connected together with a bewildering array of pipes and chutes. Some of them had small Perspex windows so you could see the grain passing through. The dust I had expected to see was non existent. The mill was spotless.
The most striking – and unsettling – thing was the throbbing machines that sieved the flour. These resembled the portaloos you find at festivals, those square boxes with doors. What made them unsettling was that they were all shaking violently. They were shaking so much that I felt that at any moment one might tear itself free and hurl itself around the room.
Given the mill’s size, it’s amazing that only a a few people work in it. It’s all run by computers, like so many things nowadays. On one of the floors, we passed three men in greasy overalls were dismantling some of the rollers that grind the grain. Rollers, one working at a faster speed to the other, don’t technically grind the wheat, as was the case traditionally; they shear it, separating the white inner portion from the outer skins.
‘What if something gets stuck in one of the machines or pipes?’ I asked the manager over the noise. ‘I mean, how do you know which part of the machinery isn’t working?’
‘We’ll know where the problem has occurred, but we won’t know immediately what’s caused it,’ he said with the air of a man who has been involved in milling flour for 30 years.
I was struggling to take in all this technical information flowing from Phil, because I didn’t have my tape recorder or notebook with me. My mind raced to try and make sense all that he was telling me and form some sort of coherent picture about the milling process. I managed to work out the process of turning wheat into flour involves cleaning, softening it with water, and then much grinding, or shearing, and sieving. The mill works 24/7 only being shut down for maintenance, which, unsurprisingly, has to be carried out regularly. Each one of the sifter machines takes three hours to clean.
Phil pointed to some machines and explained that they contained large magnets inside them that they detect any pieces of metal that might be mixed up with the grain and then extract them.
‘How does the metal get into the grain?’ I asked, looking at a bucket under a machine that contained some nuts, coins, other metal objects, and bits of weeds.
‘When the farmers are harvesting it in the fields,’ he said, adding casually that sometimes he might find a dead pigeon or rodent in a batch.
Wheat is the most common crop in England and much of it is grown on farms in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Over the last forty years, there have been big improvements in the quality of wheat produced, meaning that around 80% of the wheat arriving at the mill comes from British farmers. In the late 1970s British wheat accounted for less than 40%.
Much of the flour produced at the mill is transported a few miles up the road to Walthamstow, where Allied Bakeries has a huge bakery that can turn out 10,000 loaves an hour.
I came away from the mill with a new appreciation of bread and a piece of advice from Phil: don’t use 00 flour when you make pizza; use durum.