4 March 2000

Wheats path to your plate

Have you met the men who mill and bake your wheat? Tom Allen-Stevens invites a Cotswold grower to do just that in order to truly appreciate the customers needs.

FEW growers have actually met the man who mills their wheat, or have been shown round the processing plant. Even rarer is the grower who has followed the freshly milled flour to the bakery and seen the fruits of their labours baked, packaged and sent to the supermarket.

Peter Crudge is one grower who has. A medium-sized arable farmer in Oxfordshire, he joined ACCS, but unlike most scheme members has now had the chance to ask a miller why it is so important to keep glass out of grain. He strives for a high protein content and now knows what difference it makes to the baker.

He grows 240ha (600 acres) of cereals and break crops on clay brash and heavy loam soil in the north Cotswolds. Good milling and malting samples are the aim, with much of the wheat sold on contract to Allied Mills and ending up at their mill at Tewkesbury.

The general manager of the mill is Ian Coleman. Several thousand tonnes of wheat pass through the mill every week. The mills main customer is Allied Bakeries, but a considerable portion also goes to high street bakeries in the west of England. He has to fight hard to maintain his customer base: "Its a very competitive industry. If were not willing to meet a customers particular requirements, someone else will."

The main requirement is consistency. In an ideal world, this is supplied by perfectly consistent wheat, but Mr Coleman is more realistic: "Consistency cannot be the growers job: wheat is a natural product and differs from year to year. So its our job to blend the wheat to make a consistent flour, and it can be more difficult in some years than in others."

He recognises that the low hagbergs this year have been exceptional and admits there has been quite a lot of rethinking about what he can and cannot accept.

Allied believes that although the hagbergs were low, the quality of the crop before the rain was so good – and the rain came so late – that the protein structure and the type remained in good shape. This, combined with flour and baking improvers, gave a high quality loaf. So does this mean growers need not worry about hagberg? "No, hagberg still remains the best indicator of crop quality and baking ability," points out Mr Coleman.

Another standard Allied insists on is assured grain – a fact that Mr Crudge rather resents: "Im not that happy about having to go to the expense of becoming assured under ACCS. Im not receiving anything extra for it.

"Theres no way we can trace whos supplied wheat for a particular batch of flour, but it is essential that our customers are comfortable that the grain we use is produced to the proper standards," replies Mr Coleman. "We cant offer our suppliers anything extra for this requirement because were not getting any extra in return. Our customers also impose even more stringent conditions and expense on us, right down to how the product is packaged – and again this goes unrewarded."

Like many farmers, he does feel slightly sat on from above and would feel happier if there was just one agency looking after standards, rather than having to conform to a number of different customer requirements.

The emphasis on glass contamination is one standard Mr Crudge cannot fathom: "Is it really that bad if a bit of glass goes through undetected? Itll just get ground up into harmless dust."

Mr Coleman is aghast: "You can get a proportion out, but if it goes through, especially in granary flour, you can be in real trouble. We have a glass and broken plastics audit. Any breakages must be written down and the area cordoned off until it is decontaminated. In the unlikely event that someone found a piece of glass in a Kingsmill loaf, and they traced it back here and found we had had a broken window, wed be in serious trouble. We take glass very seriously indeed."

The wheat goes through a thorough cleaning process before it is blended and milled. Its the job of head miller Mike Peters to ensure the grain that passes to the break system, where it is sheared open and the endosperm removed, is free of contaminates. The discharge from the sieves and magnets is eye-opening in itself, but it is screenings that gives Mr Peters a bigger headache: "Quite apart from the fact that screenings cost us money, we also end up with less grain than wed bargained for, which we have to make up from elsewhere."

Recipe

Mr Peters aims to produce a recipe for a particular bakers contract. The way he does this is to blend it no less than four times to produce the consistency he desires: "Grain is blended like with like to even out inconsistencies and then again to produce the grist. The flour is blended to produce a particular quality base flour and then blended to produce a recipe."

These days, it is often up to the miller to combine skills with those traditionally held by the baker. What arrives at the bakery is a ready-to-use blend of flour to the bakers exact requirements. "We produce quite a lot of ready-mix bags for our smaller customers. All the baker has to do is just add water," states Mr Peters.

Rob Pollard is manufacturing manager at Allied Bakeries West Bromwich plant. The place is vast, producing muffins, pitta bread, rolls, cakes and biscuits, alongside its three breadmaking lines. They receive quite a high proportion of Tewkesburys flour and turn out as many as two million loaves a week, with a 24-hour turnaround, sending them direct to the supermarket.

The flour is mixed with yeast, water and flour improvers, before the resulting dough is split into the tins. "The quality of the flour is the deciding factor when determining what end product its going into," remarks Mr Pollard. "Higher protein content makes stronger flour. We add more water to it and can stretch it more. Thats what we want for our muffins."

Its thankfully a rare occurrence, but any inconsistency of flour or contamination can be a huge and costly problem for Mr Pollard if it is not detected before the batch is mixed. A batch will make 20,000 loaves, many of which may come out flat and have to be rejected if the quality of the dough is wrong. After the batch is baked and cooled, the culprits are pulled off the production line and rejected, before the rest of the loaves are sliced and packed.

A small number of flat loaves are expected anyway – baking is, after all, a natural process. The aim is to keep rejections to a minimum and this is why the baker needs a consistent raw material. It is this sort of wastage that puts a dent in profits for the plant.

Consistency is also crucial to the plants product profile; a high level of quality and consistency have been the major selling points for the Kingsmill brand. Allied is aiming to persuade the consumer to shop upmarket, which is the idea behind Kingsmill Gold, a recent addition to the top of the range, and the advertising campaign that goes with it.

Mr Pollard has his sights set firmly on understanding the customer and meeting their requirements, as does Mr Coleman at the Tewkesbury Mill. For Mr Crudge its been interesting to see where his wheat ends up and the standards that have to be achieved along the way. "The reason we grow our crops to such a high standard has become a lot clearer now," he says.