The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Flour of Dorset – Stoate’s flour

Stoate’s flour, made near Shaftesbury, is a favourite of artisan bakers. Philip Strange went to Cann Mills to find out why.

Michael Stoate and his grain store

Near Cann Mills, a mile or so south of Shaftesbury, the river Sturkel rises in the chalk escarpment at the edge of the Blackmore Vale to become a tributary of the Stour. Sturkel is thought to mean ‘little Stour’, but even this stream had, in the Domesday Book, five watermills depending on it. Now, only one watermill remains – Cann Mills, but it is a powerhouse for the thriving artisan baking movement in Dorset, providing the flour for bakeries such as the Phoenix, Long Crichel and Leakers (Bridport).
‘I have been baking bread for 24 years,’ says Aidan Chapman from the Phoenix Bakery in Weymouth, ‘and Stoate’s flour is, without a doubt, the best I have baked with in this country.’
For Michael Stoate, milling is probably written in his DNA: he is the fifth generation miller in his family. His father, Norman, took over Cann Mills in 1947, but before that, his family had already been millers for more than a hundred years, first in Watchet and then Bristol. When Norman Stoate started at Cann Mills, the business was mainly in animal feed, but in 1970 he decided to produce high-quality, stone-ground flour.
The millpond, complete with its ducks and swans, collects water from the Sturkel and feeds the late-19th-century water wheel, which still provides some of the power for grinding. The mill itself was built in the 1950s after an older building was destroyed by fire and there is an attractive Mill House where Michael was born and, along with his family, still lives.

The mill pond at Cann Mills

He looks very much the miller, covered in a light dusting of flour as he explains the magical process of milling, whereby the hard wheat grains are converted into soft flour suitable for baking. He uses carefully selected wheat, mostly organic and mostly grown on farms within a thirty-mile radius of the mill. For some flours, though, he includes organic wheat imported from Kazakhstan to maintain a high protein content. All wheat is tested in a laboratory and by test baking.
After passing through a cleaning machine, the wheat is milled into flour using pairs of millstones. These are made of French burr stone – a natural, very durable limestone from the Marne Valley in northern France, which is regarded as the best stone for flour milling. The ‘runner’ stone rotates above the stationary ‘bed’ stone without actually touching and each stone has a series of furrows that have been ‘dressed’ in to the milling surface. Grain is fed in to a hole in the middle of the ‘runner’ stone for grinding between the stones and it gradually moves outwards along the furrows to be deposited on the outside as flour. Air circulates along the furrows so that the flour is not damaged by overheating. Stone grinding is a relatively gentle process allowing the natural oils of the wheat germ to be distributed throughout the flour so that vitamins and minerals in the grain are retained and the flavour of the flour is enhanced. The nature of the flour can be influenced by adjusting the gap between the stones and the feed rate of the grain and here the skill of the miller is paramount. The flour is used directly or passed through mechanical sieves to remove bran. It is then packed in to the distinctive ‘Cann Mills’ paper sacks.
Michael produces whole wheat flour (whole grain, no bran removed), 81% brown flour (some bran removed) and stone ground white flour (actually a creamy colour because the natural oils are present along with a small amount of bran); also ‘Maltstar’, his Granary-style flour containing wheat flour, malted wheat flakes, rye flour and malt flour. These are all strong, high-gluten flours made from high-protein wheat and good for making bread (see panel). He also mills rye and spelt and produces some pastry flours from lower protein wheat. In 2011, both the organic Maltstar and stone-ground white flour were given Great Taste Gold Awards.
Cann Mills is one of a small number of mills in this country still producing traditional stone-ground flour on a commercial basis. Given that the majority of flour in this country is now made by steel roller mills, what are the benefits of using stone-ground flour? Stone-grinding produces flour incorporating the oils, vitamins and minerals of the wheat germ and the whole grain flour also contains all the fibre of the grain; these provide flavour and important nutritional benefits. Stone-ground flour also has special properties that suit the methods used by artisan bakers including a long fermentation that produces more flavour and a higher hydration that allows longer shelf life.
Michael works very hard keeping his traditional business going and clearly enjoys the challenges: ‘I find it very satisfying to go round delivering to bakers and see them pull these lovely loaves out of the oven – it’s the end of the cycle’. The artisan bakers, in and around Dorset, love Michael and his flour because the flour works for them and because Michael listens to them. Business is good and Michael attributes this to the popularity of artisan baking as well as increased interest in home baking generated by TV programmes like the Great British Bake Off.

Stone-ground, rather than rolled, flour, has a taste and texture all its own

The reputation of Stoate’s flour is spreading and there is now a weekly delivery from Cann Mills to bakeries in London. One of these is the Pocket Bakery, run by well-known cookery writer Rose Prince and her children, Jack and Lara. Later this month, Rose and Jack will open a pop-up bakery in Fortnum and Mason… using Stoate’s flour, of course.
For more information on Cann Mills, to try his flour or to find a baker who uses it, visit www.stoatesflour.com.

Flour facts
Wheat grain has three components: the endosperm (the largest part, containing starch, and proteins which make gluten), the germ (which contains oils, vitamins and minerals) and the bran (which is fibre-rich, derived from the outer covering).
Stone-ground flour contains endosperm, germ and varying amounts of bran; mass-produced white flour contains only endosperm. ‘Strong’ flour for bread making contains long chain-like proteins (gliadin and glutenin) which line up to form a viscous elastic network called gluten. In bread making, the gluten network, formed by kneading dough, traps carbon dioxide gas produced by fermenting yeast so that bread rises.

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