Andrew Wilkinson is a modern miller who has a passion for producing outstanding flour for baking and bread-making. His company, Gilchester's, is based near Newcastle and is slowly but surely becoming one of the best artisan flour-makers in the country. Chandos Elletson went to meet him.
When Andrew started thinking about wheat, he knew that he had to start with the soil. Good soil that is well fertilised produces a grain that is strong and rich in gluten (which is what gives bread its stretch. It's the elasticity in the dough that traps the air that helps bread to have structure).
However, Andrew wanted to grow organic wheat which meant he had to get nitrogen into the soil. Nitrogen, it turns out, is the major constituent of fertiliser. Before fertiliser there were two ways of getting nitrogen into the soil. One was through animals and their manure and the other was by planting a crop that naturally produces nitrogen.
Andrew didn't have any stock (cattle) and so he had to grow a crop to get the nitrogen into the soil before he could plant wheat. So, he planted Red Clover which produces nitrogen by a complicated process involving a bacteria called Rhizobia.
Rhizobia stores nitrogen after becoming established inside the root nodules of legumes - think peas or clover. So, when you plant Red Clover the rhizobia fuses into the root system and produces nitrogen. The next process is to top the crop (cut it) and then mulch it into the soil. You do this for two seasons.
"This process is the basis of our fertility system," Andrew explained to me as we strode through a field of Red Clover next to the mill. "This gives us one to two years of high grade wheat and then we start the process over again.
"Growing our own wheat has been an absolute education. I didn't realise it when I started out. It was only because we got such great feedback about our flour that I could see that not everyone was doing it in the same way. It really is true that the soil produces the wheat that in turn produces the vitamins, minerals and gluten in the flour. If you get the first part wrong then the product will not be the same."
This was a wonderful science lesson for me. I have to admit that I have a bit of a thing for soil. Once we'd come in from the field it was time to learn about milling. I admitted that I didn't know anything about what happened in a mill and it made me realise how easy it is as a cook to spend your entire life not knowing even basic things like this.
The millstone at Gilchester's is from Germany and is ultra-traditional. It is two stones that rotate round and round and the grain is poured between them. As the grain is crushed it is expelled outwards as flour and collected. This is whole wheat flour.
I didn't know that and I felt really stupid. Flour really is very simple. What happens next is where it starts to get interesting. 100% whole grain flour can have a maximum of 82% flour. The rest are the vitamins and minerals of the husk.
To get white flour all you do is sieve out the husk but as you do so you strip away the nutritional content until you are left with a fine white flour which is known by various terms. Pastry chefs will be aware of French T55 or the Italian flour 00 which makes pasta. Both these flours have zero husk.
"If you burn pure white flour in a crucible,'" Andrew continued, "you will get no ash. The ash is the vitamins and minerals - the husk. I can't get rid of it entirely and actually I don't want to. The flavour in flour comes from the vitamins and minerals and our customers love that.
"Indeed, there has been a big shift in flour towards the whole grains and the older varieties of wheat. We grow old varieties now like spelt, emmer and einkorn which are ancient grains that react very well to traditional, organic forms of farming.
"Restaurants still buy white flour from us but our domestic customers love the flavour and composition of our whole grain flours. It's really fascinating."