A few eyebrows were no doubt raised when the small Welsh miller Bacheldre Mill recently told British Baker that it was in talks with the likes of Warburtons around the potential to carry its branding and its rich artisanal backstory on some of the plant baker’s products (see BB, 13 August). With the major brands looking to play the provenance card, are craft bakers in danger of being blind-sided?

While Kingsmill features the carbon label on-pack, and Hovis and some supermarkets have moved towards using solely British wheats, how much is the craft sector doing to shout about its local wheat credentials? All the indications are that the consumer is looking for "local". The Carbon Trust’s Carbon Reduction food label is set to become bigger than both the Soil Association’s organic mark and Fairtade badge, based on value sales of products sold that feature the label. According to The Centre for Retail Research, annual sales will hit £2bn by the end of the year, making it the second best-selling ethical label behind Red Tractor.

The whole issue of flour being "local" is no doubt problematic, what with the need to bolster it with imported wheats. But the marketing potential of using local millers remains a major advantage to the craft sector. In light of this, we decided to explore some of the more niche flours and millers out there to see if provenance and a ’good story’ stacked up against performance in the bakery. Wholemeal flour was chosen to benchmark and, in so doing, we also compared white wheat and spelt wholemeals.

The baking tests were conducted by bakery consultant John Haynes, and evaluations were carried out by himself, consultant John Allen, baker Rob Harman and miller Gary Lancaster. Unsurprisingly, their opinions did not always coincide, so we have printed the scores below. All flours were evaluated against one standard test bakery recipe, using flour, water, yeast and salt and no other ingredients. All were made under the same conditions, using one-hour bulk fermentation. Note, the flours tested are just a representative sample of those now on the market rather than an exhaustive round-up.

Imported wheats continue to be used to boost the quality of millers’ flour, as was evident in the top three rated flours. The flour that came out on top was one of the benchmark flours Marriage’s Vienna Wholemeal, which is roller-milled and uses a high proportion of Canadian wheat. The evaluators considered it to have better volume, texture and flavour, attributed to the Canadian wheat. Having milled for almost 200 years, Marriage’s also has provenance in spades, with close links to local Essex growers, and also procuring from the family’s nearby farms.

"The roller-milling process results in a flour that is neither too fine nor too coarse," explains Hannah Marriage. "It’s a strong flour, designed for craft bakers to make a well-risen, palatable wholemeal loaf." The flour has over 13% protein content, with only a minimal amount of gluten added to provide consistency when baking, she adds.

In second place was Stoate & Sons’ Organic Strong 100% Wholemeal Flour, made at Cann Mills in Shaftesbury, Dorset. This is produced from locally sourced, single-variety milling wheat, blended with high-protein Kazakhstan wheat (the percentage of local wheat is dependent on the analysis of the wheat, which can vary from batch to batch between 30-50%). Like all Stoate’s flour, it is stoneground on slow-running traditional horizontal French Burr millstones, which produces a soft flour incorporating all the natural wheatgerm oils present in the wheat grain.

"It performed well and was a nice dough, but came second, because it was lower in volume and had a slightly sour taste, which wasn’t unpleasant but was distinctive," commented Haynes. "A slightly higher protein level would help it become a very commercial loaf." Would a small mill like Stoate’s be able to offer the same quality with 100% UK wheat? "It would be nice to use 100% local wheat and I have done tests on the conventionally grown Canadian varieties, which have been grown locally," says Michael Stoate. "But my feeling is that if grown organically there could be problems in the field, especially with disease resistance."

Next up was FWP Matthews’ Canadian Farmhouse Wholemeal (we tested a Cotswold Farmhouse Wholemeal consumer pack, which is the same flour). It includes 40% UK and 60% Canadian, has a 13.5% protein content and is milled in the standard way. Haynes considered it a "good bakers’ flour", adding that it was "slightly tough". "The toughness would be overcome if you added an organic bread improver," he says.

And for the rest:

4. Swaffham Prior Wholemeal Flour: "Another small independent mill," says Haynes. "It was good-quality wheat, slightly tough, which is a disadvantage if you’re looking for a softer loaf. The toughness masked the flavour. A bit of organic fat olive oil or butter would give a softer eating product and bring the flavour out."

5. Doves Farm Organic Strong Wholemeal Flour: "It had a nice flavour, but tasted dry, which I was slightly disappointed with. It was slightly low in volume. Fat would improve the recipe and it would have benefited from some more water in the recipe."

6. Redbournbury Watermill Spelt Wholemeal Flour: This was slightly different from the group, because it was old English spelt grain and needed a no-time dough, as the protein would not stand bulk fermentation. "It gave a nice loaf and although it was soft, the texture was very open," says Haynes. "It had a nice spelt flavour, but it could have been stronger. Dare we be so bold as to suggest using 70% spelt and 30% good wholemeal grain to make it into a commercial loaf?"

7. Over Windmill Zircon Wholemeal Flour (+ additional gluten)/9 (without gluten): This was the only white wheat flour tested. "White wheat gives you the golden wholemeal effect, it’s lighter, but it also lacks the flavour. A lot of children don’t like the wholemeal flavour, so it probably has a market, from that point of view," comments Haynes. In fact, it is believed that Marks & Spencer is currently using white wheat flour in its wholemeal breads.

8. Little Salkeld Wholemeal: "This was low in volume with a sour taste. From a commercial baker’s point of view, the volume was just too low. It would have benefited from a bit more yeast and maybe a bit less water in the recipe."

Many of the breads baked would have benefited from a clean label organic bread improver, he believes. Nevertheless, "If you want to make unique products, using some of these small regional mills could give you an advantage," Haynes concludes. "A partnership between the local mill and baker could be a good marketing tool as well as the benefits of reduced carbon footprints."

Wholemeal test recipe

Flour under test1,120
Sea salt 16

Average dough temperature: 26C
Fermentation: 1 hour bulk*
Yield: 4 loaves scaled @ 450g
Proof: 55 mins @ 32C 97% RH
Baking: 210C for 35 mins
*note: Wholemeal spelt from Redbournbury Mill was a no time dough