Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What makes a bread? Flour!

It is like Milk and Cheese, like fruits and jam, like eggs and Pavlova. The flour dictates the bread. You need to chose the right type of flour for your bread. Try making a Ciabatta with a low-protein (low gluten) whole grain flour – Failure!

So where do you get your flour from? Well there the problem starts. I am still in the process of setting up my little farm bakery. Of course I use organic products. Of course I wouldn’t use anything else than local products. Yeah Right. Organic isn’t the problem, local is.

A while ago I read an article on Azelia’s Kitchen Blog titled "The broken relationship between farmer, miller and baker". Don’t let the blog title fool you. It sounds like Annabel Langbein or something from Women’s Weekly. But Azelia has a huge knowledge about flour, grains and the process of baking. If she does something she does it right meaning she has an almost scientific approach to everything.

Now the core message in her article is that the three roles – Farmer, Miller and Baker – need to be experts in their field but also need to talk the language of their customer. So the farmer has to understand what the miller says and the miller needs to know what the baker wants.

This made me realise one thing – and it came as a shock: we do not have millers in New Zealand! (I do exclude big flour factories like Champion and Weston on purpose. They don’t provide NZ Organic flour as far as I know) We have farmers who operate a grain mill. I am sure they understand everything about growing wheat etc. But they sadly don’t understand a lot about flour. And even worse, they do not understand what the baker wants. What the baker needs.

I contacted local organic flour companies and asked for a flour analysis. They can not tell me what type of flour they sell. They do not blend the flour. They can not provide a consistent quality. Imagine, baking a bread blindfolded, not knowing what is in your flour bin! Impossible!

On top of this, the flour is especially milled for my order. They even say it should be used in 4 weeks after receiving the shipment. This is proof that there isn’t a lot of knowledge around. Green flour is not the best flour. Flour needs to oxidise and is best after a couple of months after milling. In the case of flour, fresh isn’t best! If you want to read more, here is another excellent post from Azelia: "oxidising fresh flour"

This all sounds very harsh. Which is not my intention. The problem is that these companies do sell their flour to some bakeries. So the “Well other people don’t have this problem” argument might be used. But bakers I talked to confirmed to me that they would never even consider using a flour they don’t know anything about. So how does one make bread, organic healthy bread on a high level, from local flour? The answer: You can’t in NZ!

I meanwhile buy from a company who import flour from Italy and Turkey. Which drives me insane when I start thinking about food miles (which I try to avoid – the thinking and the food miles).Talking to them about the NZ local flour situation I was told that they would love to sell local organic flour but that their customers are not happy with the quality and the inconsistent variations of the quality. Every flour they sell has a fact sheet which lists the nutrients and most importantly the proteins. Even if the quality would change, at least I would know about it and would know how to adjust my recipes.

It fills me with sadness that I can’t use a New Zealand flour and still produce a high quality product.It actually took away a big part of my dream to create a local healthy food. So what is the solution? I only see one way and that is to have a milling culture in New Zealand. We would need small mills with flour experts who can produce local flour from local grain. We already grow the grain, but we don’t mill and blend it properly. But I don’t think there is a market for this. Or let me re-phrase this: I don’t think anyone sees the market for this. One baker in Auckland tells me he would love to use NZ Organic flour if it would be available in different types and blends. I would guess judging from the silos he gets from Champion or Weston that his demand would already use a big part of a local mill’s production. And thinking of bakeries like Paris Berlin, Zarbos, Olaf’s, Two Hands Bread, Matakana Bakery and The Loaf to just name the few I can list from the top of my head I wonder why there is nobody who sees the market. None of them seem to use NZ Organic flour.

Will we ever be able to bake New Zealand bread with New Zealand flour?


Coquo, ergo sum.


  1. Hey mate

    Great article again (as usual :-))
    (and I like your motto - had to look it up first of course :-))

    I was just thinking: is there actually enough wheat (or any other corn/grain) grown in NZ for mills to make sense? I can't remember whether I've ever seen any cornfields around NZ. But then I haven't looked for them of course...


    1. Thank you Joa.

      Al NZ grain is grown in the Canterbury area. Our two biggest flour merchants are Champion (Good man Fielder) and Weston. Both companies operate big mills (see here for details: http://www.flourinfo.co.nz/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4&Itemid=4). Of course they not only process NZ grain but also imported mainly from Australia.
      I often compare the situation with UK where there are many boutique flour mills producing specialty grains and selling to crafts bakeries. It is a bit a hen and egg situation I think.
      But I have to agree, New Zealand with it small markets is always a bit tricky to set up operations like this. But can we really afford to be 100% dependent on imported grain and flour? Bread is one of our staple food.



  2. It's great to see someone with more knowledge than I writing about this. I perservere with NZ organic wheat, even milling my own wholemeal flour (on the same hand-powered mill I crush my brewing barley), but my results are disappointing when compared to commercial loaves. I've always put this down to low protein levels in NZ's soft wheat. I understood commercial NZ flour was blended with harder Australian wheat to boost the protein levels.
    I too would like to use a local flour source and wonder whether blending my milled flour with an Australian organic flour might be a carbon-friendly compromise. I haven't found an Australian organic stoneground flour though.
    Anyway here's too many more organic loaves and home-brewed beers. I haven't even neared my goal of home brewing an organic beer from locally sourced organic malt and hops!

    1. Thank you Stephen for your comment. Brewing and baking? Sounds familiar to me. I did a lot of All Grain Brewing but not at the moment.
      I have reasonable success with NZ Organic flour. I also got some improvement by adding Gluten Flour to the bread flour. Gluten flour has about 40% of gluten forming proteins. I did experiment a bit and it worked well with a 5% gluten flour addition.
      The other factor is kneading. I meanwhile use a commercial dough mixer although a small 10 liter one. Kneading for 12 - 15 minutes on medium speed got eventually some gluten forming in the dough. A Window Pane Test (http://www.thekitchn.com/bakers-techniques-how-to-do-th-70784) is crucial here. An underworked dough will not have enough structure because there is no gluten development yet.
      And also be careful once you have developed that gluten to not destroy it again by over-proofing the loaf. Do the finger test: http://gaaarp.wordpress.com/2009/06/11/the-proof-is-in-the-proofing/

      Happy baking


    2. Thanks for the advice Peter. I've never really worried about the window pane test (partly because I know my dough would never pass!). I might try strengthening the dough by adding some gluten flour and try my luck. I'll let you know how I get on.