An evening sun floods the open plan bakery that smells of warm, humid grains. It evokes memories of rural summer days as roaring combine harvesters collect the drooping ears of wheat. The image that this smell conjures is particularly resonant.
Owner Dan Mifsud stands proudly over the glistening granite mill in The Almond Thief bakery in Dartington, south Devon, named after his Mediterranean grandfather who misspent his youth stealing nuts.
While the public was going wild for sourdough during lockdown, Mifsud was going a few steps further and began milling wheat himself, bought directly from local farmers. This may seem banal, but it’s an act of defiance against an industry almost entirely built on mass production and intensive farming.
“To connect growers and bakers, you need a mill,” says Mifsud. “It’s the missing link.
And they’re part of a growing movement of sustainable food producers that are reclaiming the middle ground, taking control of processing their products to develop local and resilient food networks.
“When I first started making bread, I found it was impossible to know where it [the wheat] had come from.” says Mifsud, a biologist who switched to baking seven years ago, unable to resist a career in cooking. “I just love food,” he adds, with a hungry smile.
“I became more interested, and I developed connections with local farmers,” explains Mifsud. “During the covid pandemic we could pause and think.”
The seed was sown, and the idea came to fruition in 2020. Mifsud and local farmers Bob Mehew, Marina O’Connell and Jon Perkins came up with the Dartington Mill, a partnership that would connect The Almond Thief directly to local grain growers bypassing the international markets and keeping money circulating in the local economy.
There are few things more comforting than warm buttery toast, but rarely do we think about the complicated journey that wheat makes from seed to slice.
As is the case with all globally traded commodities, markets incentivise farmers to maximise crop yields, with little thought for quality, taste, or nutrition, let alone the environmental impact.
As Mifsud found, it’s impossible to know the variety or origin of grains due to the centralised milling process, with four millers controlling 65 per cent of the UK’s six million tonnes of flour. This favours the industrial bread makers, who produce 80 per cent of British loaves.
Fortunately for Mifsud, you don’t have to look far in South Devon to find sustainable wheat growers; Mehew, O’Connell and Perkins are only three miles from the bakery.
Huxhams Cross Farm is a biodynamic farm, where fields of wheat sit alongside rows of fruit and veg interspersed with hazel trees in an agroforestry system. But project manager-turned-grain-grower, Mehew, who farms with O’Connell at Huxhams Cross, explains how these are no ordinary varieties of wheat.
O’Connell and Mehew sow ‘Population wheat’, developed by renowned seed breeder Martin Wolfe from Wakelyns farm, who crossed 19 modern varieties and one ancient to make over 190 different species. These are then planted together in one field, in contrast to traditional wheat which is sowed as one single variety in a monoculture.
These varieties also have longer roots bringing better drought resilience, while the mix provides more interesting flavour as the harvest is less uniform. On the downside, yields are lower – though proponents say this is outweighed over a longer period of time as these crops are less likely to suffer in extreme weather. It’s also where a mill comes in, as they can make more money than selling to a commodity trader.
“They’re much more resilient and they’ll adapt to the locality,” says Mehew. “Last year it grew really quickly and outgrew the weeds.”
Having successfully connected bakers with farmers, the next step was buying the mill.
They captured the imagination of their local community to raise £20,000 and bought a New American Mill, made from granite from Vermont in the US.
This igneous rock, formed by cooling magma, finely grinds the grain at a low temperature, preserving the nutrients that can be damaged by heat.
This bears no resemblance to the industrial way of milling where steel rollers crush, rather than grind, the grain removing any fibre, oil and nutrients. It says a lot that industrial bakers are legally required to add vitamins back into white flour, or as Mifsud describes them, “air with no nutrition.”
“Bread has become so devalued,” he adds.
“Whereas you could have one slice of this,” he says holding up his sourdough loaf, “and you’d be sated.”
Between them, Mifsud, Mehew and Perkins are hoping to spark a revolution beyond their corner of progressive Devon to vindicate wheat, flour and bread as a fresh food that can be nutritious, delicious, regenerate the land and stimulate the local economy.
They see grower, miller, baker relationships developing all over the country, a return to the days before industrial food production. To help this movement grow, Dartington Mill is letting others use their brand, ‘Reclaim the Grain’.
“We’d like other growers to be part of the movement,” says Mehew. “My ultimate vision is to see baker, miller and grower relationships all over the place.”
“There used to be a miller in every town,” adds Mifsud. “Every town could now have a ‘Reclaim the Grain’.”
As prices of wheat and fertiliser hit record highs due to the conflict in Ukraine, the idea of taking food away from international markets and re-localising the supply is more topical than ever.
“We are totally resilient to these changes in the global commodities market since we are working with local producers at prices that reflect the actual costs of production at small scale without fertilisers,” says Mehew.
Looking out at a field of wheat, it’s almost impossible to imagine how it can be transformed into a loaf of bread as so much is hidden from view.
If we can do one thing, it’s to demand this detail is put back in sight. As Mifsud puts it: “Think about the processes behind your bread; it could be done right.”