By a great stroke of good luck, I chose a great day to call in at the Heron Corn Mill in Beetham to see what "being a volunteer" might look like. The first Friday in the month is when miller Stuart demonstrates milling flour as part of a tour of the workings of the mill.
Stuart and the mill team have put in a lot of hard work renovating the historic mill, with help from Lottery funding. And there is still lots to do, as with any restoration project. But there is also plenty of fun to be had, which is why I went along to see about volunteering.
Stuart sold me a couple of Heron Mill baking tins, and I took home a couple of bags of the flour I saw milled, and this is what I did with them.
First off, I made a quarter sponge. This is the Oxford English Dictionary definition -
4.I.4 To convert (flour or dough) into ‘sponge’. Also intr.
1772 Ann. Reg. ii. 109/2 So will a thimble-full of barm, by adding of warm water, raise or spunge any body of flour. 1876 Mid-Yorks. Gloss. 134/2. 1962 M. E. Murie Two in Far North ii. vii. 171 The [bread] sponge didn't sponge in spite of red damask tablecloth and fur parka I had lovingly wrapped it in.
You can see the yeast getting to work on the flour, forming bubbles on the surface of the very moist mixture. Having no salt in there means there is nothing to hold the yeast back, and it really has a great time gorging itself on the flour. All that feasting starts breaking down the flour and generally developing the flavour. If you have never tried this, you should! An overnight sponge makes a real difference to the bread you bake the next day.
By the way, the snazzy plastic bowl can be found at Asda for £1.50 or at the Pound shop in Lancaster for - a pound.
Once the sponge had done its work (several hours), I set about making the bread. As well as adding the rest of the flour, I threw in some extras for added texture. I try lots of different ingredients in this way, but I always measure them quite carefully with the large side of the plastic spoon that came with my bread making machine. That way I know what works and what doesn't. For 2 loaves, these are my usual choices -
- 4 tablespoons of rye flakes
- 4 tablespoons of cracked wheat
- 2 tablespoons of linseed (golden for white bread, the cheaper brown for brown bread)
- 2 tablespoons of wheatgerm
I use quick action "easy bake" dried yeast (not the old fashioned "dried active" stuff that you need to mix with water, and which doesn't taste nice at all). The quick action stuff can be mixed in with the dry flour and works really well. Simon at Staff of Life bakery in Kendal uses it, so it must be OK. Don't waste money on those little sachets, though - you can get it in a tin made by Dove's Farm or Allinson's for about £1.15 and it lasts for ages. You can also get it from Single Step Wholefoods in Lancaster, where it is even cheaper, and you buy it by the ounce which rather appeals to people of my age!
To get the salt mixed in properly without damaging the yeast, I mix it with the second 9 fluid ounce cup of tepid water. In fact, though, I like to make my bread nice and moist, because it just works better, and with all the extras I used in this bake, I finished up adding nearly 2 cups of water at the mixing stage, making 27 fluid ounces in all. But it's best to start with a fairly dry mix (1 cup of water at sponging time and 1 cup at mixing time) and then keep adding till you think it can't take any more. Then add a bit of olive oil and you get a really smooth and lovely texture. This is the bit I like most about working dough - when it feels really smooth and velvety, you just know it is going to be fine. If you really go too far, you can always add a bit of flour at the end to make it more manageable. But as Andrew Whitley says in his book (Bread Matters) - "wetter is better".
After about 40 minutes rising, my bread was starting to look lively -
But I let it have at least an hour and it was up to the top of the bowl by the time I moved it on into the Heron Mill tins.
Don't listen to anyone who says you need to knock back your dough! Why waste all those good bubbles? It just needs a bit of gentle stretching to get it going strong in the final proving stage. As Simon at Staff of Life said, anything more than half a dozen gentle stretches and you'll knock all the life out of it. I watched the lady at the Handmade Bakery in Slaithwaite near Huddersfield moving bread on into proving baskets, and there really is nothing to it. Their website spookily has a picture of me having a cup of good Yorkshire coffee in the cafe - a chance in a million.
Just cut the dough into 2 loaf sized pieces, and fold in 3, stretching as you go. Then turn it round 90 degrees and fold in three again, stretching as you go. The Handmade Bakery lady then dragged the dough towards her a couple of times, with her hands cupped round the back of the loaf. The bottom sticks to the table, so everything else gets a good stretch. Very hard to explain, but it feels right. Here's a picture from their web site, showing how it's done -
But just the folding is probably enough preparation for putting the bread in the tins. When I've used tins in the past, they have always been coated with a non-stick surface, but the Heron Mill ones are simple heavy grade metal tins. I was fairly liberal with the oil to make sure that they wouldn't stick, but this was not a good idea, because the tins are made from folded not pressed metal, so the corners are actually joins and can leak. As it turned out there was no way they would have stuck, so I would recommend just a very light wipe with an oily piece of kitchen roll.
It's clear from this picture that the bread is going to be substantial and coarsely textured - really good qualities in a wholemeal loaf! I left them for an hour in the warmth of the kitchen - no direct heat, but a leisurely rise, covered with a tea towel against draughts.
They went in the oven on the rack above the middle of the oven, pre heated to absolute full whack, and only turned down to gas mark 8 after about 14 minutes. My usual bake is done on a hot stone, so it's not surprising that these loaves needed 55 minutes rather than my normal 50 minutes. There is the tin to heat up, after all, and no super-heat from the stone. It's always better to be safe than sorry - there is nothing worse than an underdone loaf.
When they came out, you could just see the lettering on the side and end of the loaf, thanks to the tin. And the flavour was completely wonderful - rich and nutty. Maybe I am a bit dewy-eyed about baking with flour I've seen milled at my local mill, but it really is a special taste!
And the texture was good too -
If you want to see flour being milled (in small quantities) at the Heron Corn Mill, why not come along on the first Friday of the month, where Stuart will be doing a mill tour and milling demo at 11:30. The tour costs £5 and is really interesting. A mill tour (with the wheel turning, but no milling) is available at 11:00 every day the mill is open, again the cost of the tour is £5. And you can look round the mill under your own steam for free.