It’s 8.30am and milling has been underway at Cann Mills in Dorset for some time already, as owner Michael Stoate approaches with a soft trail of flour puffing in his wake, offering a powdery handshake. ‘Make sure you have no loose clothing,’ he advises.
We enter the building, the morning sun pouring in through the back windows, creating floury rays on the machinery. Everything is covered with a thin white film, prompting a nervous glance from my assistant towards our camera equipment. No smoke without fire...
Stoate’s family has been milling since 1832, first in Watchet in Somerset, taking flour across the Severn to feed the miners in Swansea and coming back with coal – plus more besides. ‘My grandfather met his wife over there,’ he says.
In 1947, Stoate & Sons relocated to the bottom of a valley just south of the Saxon hilltop town of Shaftesbury. The mill’s water wheel still plays an important part, not least in a historical context at the centre of operations. Once the sole provider of energy, it now accounts for just a quarter of the power required. ‘Milling is a power-hungry operation,’ says Stoate. ‘So as energy prices go up it becomes more and more significant really. We use the water during the day, and we’ll shut the hatches at the end of the day and then it will build up. It’s a bit like recharging a battery at night really; the pond is our battery.’
Cann Mills is ideally located, in a valley fed by several natural springs, which provide a constant source of water. ‘There used to be five mills within a mile of this little stream. In 1976 we had a severe drought and we might have lost an hour’s milling a day but nothing more than that, so it’s quite impressive. We’re in a real catchment area so it all ends up down here… which has its disadvantages too!’
The mill originally concentrated on producing feed for local farms. ‘By the early 1970s we weren’t doing animal feed at all, it was all flour. It was a sort of semi-retirement plan that backfired. My father was very clever. When he started, there was a big trade in wholefoods that was just taking off in this country – a lot of hippy types opening all these wholefood shops all over the place. They were hugely passionate about what they were doing, but they weren’t exactly high-speed businessmen. Sadly the supermarkets saw it as a growing side of the market and the wholefood shops started closing down left right and centre. I needed to look for other avenues, so then I started targeting bakers.’
The mill now produces nine types of flour, which are ground using traditional mill stones, unlike the more commercial metal stones used in mass bread production – which remove most of the goodness. ‘With stone grinding it’s not as efficient a way of doing it, but all the wheatgerm oils and goodness are left in the flour,’ Stoate explains. ‘With wholegrain flour you sort of bung it all back together again – making white flour does literally take all the goodness out of it.’
The stone mills also require attention from stone dressers who maintain the stones with iron ‘mill bills’ as their tools – a process once provided by craftsmen travelling around the country. With the demand for the service at such a low level, Stoate and his small team have had to adopt those skills and continue the process themselves. And, as he explains, there’s an unusual peril to this peculiar job. ‘When you’re chipping the stones, you get tiny fragments of metal flying off, which used to embed in your hand. So someone who did a lot of stone dressing would have black marks on their hands. If you wanted to know how experienced a stone dresser was, you’d say, “Show us your metal” and they’d show us this black mark.’ The growing demand for artisan bread varieties has been a boom for Stoate. ‘Our trade was 50/50 organic/conventional for a while. But in the past 10-12 years, it’s switched to 90 organic, 10 conventional.’
Stoate & Sons is one of the few independent stone mills still operating commercially in the country. ‘I think there are about 20 members of the Traditional Corn Millers Guild in the UK. There are only about three of us that are purely commercial. But they are all noticing they are getting busier.’ The reasons for this are varied – be it flavour, purpose or intolerance – ‘I have an allergy to oats actually, which is quite funny for a miller’. Stoate also attributes the trend to ‘all these programmes on the telly, theGreat British Bake Off and all that. That’s created a big demand, people are giving it a go at home.’
This opportunity – not to mention the quality of the flour and idyllic location – was recognised by breadmaker Paul Larry, who has been teaching at his Panary, across the yard from the mill, for three years. ‘That building was packed with bits of old machinery I’d collected from auctions and so on,’ says Stoate. ‘I cleared it out and made it into a little bakery. It works – we bounce off each other really well.’
It’s a clear sign of the times; our want and need to find experiences that involve using our hands to create something. Making bread provides the same therapeutic feelings we get from feeling earth pass through our fingers, which of course is where it all starts.