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14 April 2020

How flour millers are coping with Britain’s bread baking boom

When coronavirus hit the UK, an extra 2.1 million of us bought flour in four weeks.

The moment Billie Wilkinson knew something was up was Friday 27 March. The co-owner of Gilchesters Organics, a flour mill in Stamfordham, rural Northumberland, woke to 200 orders coming in for her flour in half an hour.

“We usually have 200 mail orders in a month,” she says. And the orders didn’t stop. Their website nearly crashed; 95 per cent of those placing orders for sacks of flour – three or four giant ones at a time – were new customers, and not the “wacky bakers” who normally come to the company.

Wilkinson and her husband had to put a temporary halt to new orders, and ration future shops to two sacks per person. That helped slightly, but it didn’t stop the demand. Since then their two mills have been at full capacity.

For Bertie Matthews of Matthews Cotswold Flour in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, a father-and-son company, the big spike in demand came nine days earlier on Wednesday 18 March. “It went absolutely berserk,” he admits.

Before, Matthews was supplying a couple of hundred orders of flour to small artisan bakeries, and a handful of farm shops and delis. Now they’re fulfilling several thousand orders in a month, putting their 22,000 tonnes of milling capacity to the test.

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We have gone flour mad, and there’s one key contributor: Covid-19. As supermarket shelves lay bare in the UK’s first few weeks of staggered lockdown, we’ve cleared retailers of their flour stocks and shoved them into our store cupboards.

In the month leading up to 22 March – when Matthews was seeing the crest of a wave in orders, and just before Wilkinson would – UK grocers saw a 92 per cent increase in purchasing of flour, according to retail analyst Kantar. An extra 2.1 million of us bought flour in those four weeks compared to the year before, with everyone buying just one extra packet on average.

“The general trend was one of people shopping more often and buying more widely across stores, bringing forward purchases of items that they would usually buy infrequently,” says Aimee Van Vlaanderen of Kantar.

But it caused havoc. Shelves were emptied, not just of flour but of loaves of bread, causing us to enter a vicious circle. “The hanging gardens of Babylon were built with bread,” says William Rubel, a historian and author of Bread: A Global History.

“The pyramids were built with bread. The Parthenon and Salisbury Cathedral were built by labourers for whom the staple food was bread. The shadow still exerts its powerful force,” he says.

It’s a staple food, and one we feel the need to return to at times of hardship – so when the shelves are stripped bare of bread, we begin to panic and bake our own.

The reason the shelves are bare is the way the market dynamics of flour are set up. Less than one in 20 bags of flour in the UK are sold through supermarkets ordinarily, with the majority going to commercial bakers or restaurants – which are now closed.

It’s difficult to retool production lines used to creating 15kg bags into ones producing bags a tenth of that size. So the supermarket supply chain has gummed up, putting extra pressure on the ranks of independent mills across the country.

“My husband takes it very personally,” says Wilkinson. “People need it and it’s our basic instinct to have bread. For thousands and thousands of years, bread has been with us, and the lack of bread I think frightens people.”

So Gilchesters Organics has co-opted friends and family members into working to keep production at a peak while socially distancing and wearing masks (commonplace already in mills). Wilkinson’s teenage daughter received her first ever pay cheque last week after helping out at the mill.

The situation is similar in Chipping Norton, where Matthews – operating the company remotely from Australia, where he went to visit his girlfriend before the global aviation industry shut down – is directing his 69-year-old father.

Some staff have been compelled to self-isolate, meaning the company has brought in ten people from the local village to work as temporary employees after undergoing regular health and temperature checks. Matthews even invested in an 18-by-24-foot military-grade tent to place outside the mill warehouse to allow workers packing bags to keep a safe distance while maintaining production. “We’re doing whatever we can,” he says.

The hope these independent millers cherish is that – after the coronavirus subsides – we remember those who stepped up to feed us.

“Every mill is overwhelmed at the minute,” says Wilkinson, “which is fabulous news for the small mills. This is where we should think about it. It keeps the value in the county, and provides food security.”

She hopes that out of a horrific situation, a silver lining emerges: “It’s alerting people to the fact that something on their doorstep has to be valued.”

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