Hopefully, one of the good things to come out of our current situation will be a greater reverence for our food, and a greater understanding of where it comes from. After the initial surges subsided, it was possible once again to buy pasta, UHT milk and even toilet roll. But since then there have been other shortages. Yeast, as everyone tries their hand at making bread at home. Icing sugar*, caster sugar, brown sugar as people brush up on their baking skills generally. And, of course, flour. We are told that this is all due to a rise in demand. That there is plenty of flour, but millers just can’t put any more of it in small bags. Either because they don’t have the capacity, or because they don’t have enough bags.

Oat bread
Oat bread made in the bread machine

The bread machine and I make most of our bread. We have done so for ages, it’s not a Lockdown thing. And so when it became hard to get flour, I started to get a bit anxious. The irony is that we live quite close to a mill that’s working overtime to meet demand. Their flour is lovely. It’s also a distant memory – with their webshop open for 15 minutes a day (at random) you have more chance of winning the lottery than scoring a bag of flour. 

As wheat flour became harder to come by, people started turning to alternative flours. Those shelves emptied too, which makes life very difficult for people who need to keep to a gluten-free diet.

Mill stones
Stone age home milling technology, at Butser Ancient Farm

One of my favourite companies at the moment is Hodmedod, which is committed to growing high-quality grains and pulses on British farms. They sell quite a lot of unusual flours and are struggling to keep up with demand. 

But they also sell tabletop mills, which let you grind your own flours at home. I decided that owning one of those beauties would cut down on my flour anxiety without causing shortages for other people. Ryan and I discussed the pros and cons, looked at the alternatives for home milling, and finally invested in a Mockmill 100.

Mockmill 100
Space age home milling technology – the Mockmill 100

It’s specifically designed to process small batches of grists into flour. It will tackle corn (but not popcorn, apparently the endosperm doesn’t lend itself to milling), wheat, barley and oats. It will turn chickpeas, green peas, yellow split peas and lentils into pulse flours. You can use it to process quinoa and buckwheat into pseudocereal flours. It’s an ethnobotanist’s dream. The Mockmill can also grind spices, but not coffee, nuts or oilseeds, which will gum up the works. (It comes with instructions and a list of things you can and can’t mill, and the Mockmill company is super helpful if you email them with a query.)

Our mill took a little while to arrive from Germany. A small amount of assembly was required, and then we were off! The first stage is to run something through the mill to clean it – we used white rice. Two minutes later, you have rice flour (the initial batch has to be discarded). It’s no louder than a blender, and downright fascinating to watch.

My little mill is never going to turn out superfine ultra-white flour, but we should all be eating less of that anyway. So far I have turned naked oats into oat flour to use in place of rolled oats in oat bread (which is delicious). We used rice flour to make pastry for a Bakewell tart. We’ve had pancakes made from yellow split pea flour and muffins with homemade wholemeal flour, and I’ve made chickpea flour for a friend (we still have a bag I bought last year).

Quick cook barley mix

My latest experiment was a bit off-the-wall. I had most of a packet of “quick cook barley” mix which was past its sell-by date. It contained barley, yellow lentils and green split peas. On one incredibly depressing Lockdown afternoon, I thought I would put it through the mill for a lark. I wasn’t sure how it would cope with a mixed grist, but it did just fine. (The mill has 10 settings for coarseness. I did this experiment on 5.)

Quick cook barley mix

Baking with non-wheat flours is a bit of an adjustment, and a journey we have only just started on. I used my hybrid flour half-and-half with self-raising for a batch of scones. I added some baking powder to compensate (and overdid it, I think – they made my tongue tingle!) and they came out quite nicely. Nice enough for me to “make more of those, thank you!”

Quick cook barley mix flour

I had enough hybrid flour leftover to try making flatbreads half-and-half with bread flour, and they were really lovely, too. So now I’m looking at the bag of soup mix (which has a longer ingredient list) in a new light….

Wheat growing in the Advanced Plant Habitat on the ISS in 2018.
[Image credit: NASA]

It occurs to me that astronauts on long-duration space missions could benefit from something very similar to my little mill (perhaps the larger model!). When they grow crops on Mars, they’ll need a way to process them into flour if they’re going to do any baking. And as we have discovered, when you’re shut inside for long periods of time, you’re going to be doing some baking.

NASA has done some research on the issue. There’s a variety of wheat called USU-Apogee that was bred specifically to be grown in space. It has very short stalks and can grow under continuous lighting conditions. The limited power supplies on the ISS means astronauts there can’t run a bread machine. They recently used a special zero-g oven to bake space cookies – maybe it could do flatbreads! 

*If you have granulated sugar, a blender, and some time on your hands, you can make your own icing sugar. And if you can get plain flour and baking powder, then you can make your own self-raising flour.