Alex Waugh, director general at the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers (Nabim), on the vital partnership between millers and bakers.
Flour is one of the most common food ingredients, and yet most people don’t have much idea of where it comes from, how it is made and the huge range of types and qualities available. UK flour millers are among the best in the world, with modern, sophisticated mills – in which £150m has been invested over the last five years – and a culture of continuous improvement. They produce several hundred grades of flour to suit specific purposes – perhaps not surprising when you consider that 30% of all food products on the shelf in the average British supermarket contain wheat flour.
The UK is unusual compared with most other countries in the world, in that the majority of wheat is supplied direct to the mill from a farm. That means millers are able to purchase named varieties of wheat, with specific quality characteristics, and blend them accordingly. In the style of top winemakers, this might mean a single-variety grist, or a combination of varieties with different qualities to produce a consistent flour that performs as intended every time. Also in the style of wine, every harvest (vintage) is different; millers take great care to assess the qualities of each wheat crop and adjust their blends as necessary.
That so much wheat comes directly from the farm also means there is a unique level of traceability available in the UK, setting us apart from international competition. Furthermore, millers are strong supporters of the Red Tractor scheme, meaning that every UK farm from which they source is subject to an annual inspection by an independent auditor, checking compliance with rules on environment and food safety matters.
Having modern facilities with the highest food safety standards is only beneficial if operators are properly trained. UK flour millers have always invested heavily in developing their people. On top of company-specific training, Nabim estimates that over 80% of the entire UK milling sector workforce has benefited from its distance learning programme, which is also followed by students around the world. It is investing in developing the programme further, with the construction of a virtual mill to help those who have grown up with modern IT.
All this is of no use unless the flour makes appealing bakery foods. That’s why so many millers work in partnership with their customers to develop new products and to look at ways in which existing lines can be improved, for the benefit of all.