In December 2006, Mike Thurlow, miller and tenant of Letheringsett Watermill in north Norfolk, won the UKTV Local Food Hero Award. One of the judges, celebrity chef Gary Rhodes, described him as "the nation’s favourite" and thousands of internet voters clearly agreed.
He had already been crowned East Anglian winner - there were 379 entries from Norfolk alone - before cooking-off in Devon against three other finalists from across the country. "It was totally unexpected," he says. "I would have been thrilled to be regional winner. But national? Quite fantastic."
You can believe him. There is no chintzy Good Lifer about Mike Thurlow, no rat race escapee cruising on a few City bonuses and playing at being green and ethical. Letheringsett Watermill is a business and Thurlow won the award because he operates to an ethic in which he happens to believe: local sourcing, renewable energy and low food miles. "My wheat is local," he says. "Our ZI19 and our spelt all comes from Norfolk. I cooked with spelt in the final."
Renewable energy comes from the little River Glaven and the flour is sold through 66 outlets in Norfolk and three in north Suffolk. And there won’t be many more.
"After the award, enquiries came from around the country - particularly for our spelt - but we didn’t take them on because food miles are important. We do mail-order, which is less damaging than driving it yourself, but 25kg is about the limit there and that wouldn’t suit most bakeries."
The story of how he got where he is today wouldn’t suit most millers, either. Thurlow is self-taught. He has been at Letheringsett since 1987, having earlier seen the mill while lorry-driving after being invalided out of the Navy. It was barely working and undergoing sporadic refurbishment. "I fell in love with the building," he says. "I couldn’t believe that it might be lost forever - there are so few traditional mills. It just sparked me."
Although Thurlow didn’t know anything about milling, he decided to get involved. "People were doing this nearly 1,000 years ago, with minimal technology, and I thought I had to be able to do it. I finished driving in August and, by late September, I was here, taking over financially in November and I’ve not looked back."
But he can look back on a lot of hard work by him, his wife, Marion and, now, his five staff. "I had early help from someone, but sadly he died and thereafter I was on my own. We had to replace the floors - we used local oak - and Marion and I dug out the millpond by hand.
"We had to realign and rebalance the water wheel and have since rebuilt it, replacing the wooden blocks and arms. The worst thing was the damage that had been done beforehand, such as cogs being smashed to stop the mill turning in high water. We had replacements cast by a local foundry."
Advice appeared unexpectedly. "A party visited from Worsborough Mill in Yorkshire and one man had been to a Dutch milling school. He gave me a few tips. Later, when another group came from Yorkshire, I asked a lady to take some flour back to the man at Wors- borough for his approval. And I got a phone call saying, ’You’ve cracked it.’ That was wonderful. And now I just love what I do."
Demand for his flour has trebled since winning the Local Food Hero award and is outstripping supply. "We produce spelt flour - which is organic because spelt can only be grown organically - and also organic stoneground flour, together with non-organic stoneground and then a special blend - of white and stoneground - for bread makers. There are no additives in them and although they soak up more moisture and take longer to rise and prove properly, the result is a more wholesome loaf with a distinctive flavour.
"I am milling well over a tonne of spelt a week, and just over a tonne of normal stoneground, together with about half a tonne of organic stoneground and about three quarters of a tonne of special blend." Retail outlets, particularly farm shops, are bigger business than bakeries now, because so many people are returning to home-baking, he says.
Overall, he sells up to eight tonnes a week, but that includes 10 other exceptional flours that are bought in from people like W & H Marriage and Sons, in Chelmsford and Smith’s Mill, which makes its pastry flour, and also Doves Farm at Hungerford.
The mill runs one set of stones and sometimes two, along with a chain hoist, screen cleaner, separator and rolling machine, but its 14hp output could drive four sets if required and another set from the Netherlands is on order.
Part of the mill’s top floor has now been converted to a classroom for spreading the word to visiting school parties. And the word on Letheringsett’s output also seems to be spreading rapidly among paying consumers, attracted by its green provenance, thanks in no small part to the Local Food Hero accolade. This watermill may be an anachronism; yet, with a minimal carbon footprint, its time seems to have come again.
=== At a glance ===
Business name: Letheringsett Watermill
Location: Letheringsett, near Holt, north Norfolk
Ownership: Mike Thurlow, tenant at a peppercorn rent (paying a token amount)
Turnover: £125,000+ (2007) and rising
=== What the bakers think ===
Frankie Whittred, manager of Whalebone Bakery, Melton Constable in Norfolk, has been buying from Letheringsett since 1997. He says: "We buy spelt, stoneground and organic stone, from Letheringsett - about 10 or 12 sacks a week in all. We use spelt in particular for biscuits, scones and bread rolls, and we use stoneground and organic stoneground for the large and small loaves. They all sell very well, but orders for organic have gone up a lot."
David Boley, of H&J Moore, Fakenham, has also been dealing with Letheringsett since the mid-’90s. "It’s very good flour," he says. "What I can never understand is that you hear British farmers say they cannot grow bread-making wheat in Norfolk, but that isn’t right. His is excellent and it makes an excellent loaf of bread - particularly his spelt."
Michael Goetze, of All Natural Bakery, Bury St Edmunds, has been using Letheringsett flour for seven or eight years. "It is absolutely perfect for our purposes," he states. "I buy the organic stoneground and that is a fantastic wholemeal. We use it in all our wholemeal breads and it works so well. It is surprisingly finely milled and not too compact, which helps very much. People don’t want these heavy bricks.
"Very often, wholemeal stoneground is quite coarse, but this isn’t. And its quality is very consistent. That’s why we like it. It is better than anything I have come across."