Flour Power: Milling through the years
Apologies first off for the rather obvious pun. However, thanks to the Ancient Romans and their technique for making bread, the words “flour” and “flower” actually began life meaning the same thing.
The words originated from the Roman term ‘flos’, used to describe the very best grade of fine, white flour, reserved exclusively for the aristocracy. Flos was produced by hand, grinding and sifting through linen. Although even by Ancient Roman times, flour production was by no means a new practice. For generations before and after, flour would commonly be produced in the home using a hand quern. However the process of “milling” as we know it, an important part of civilised society for millennia, is believed to have started with the Roman Empire, who displayed great resourcefulness and ingenuity. The Berbegal watermill (4th century AD) was an example of this, producing flour on a colossal scale. Fast forward to the middle ages and watermills, as well as windmills had become commonplace in the production of flour. In 1300 there were between 10-15,000 watermills in England alone.
Martin Downey, a miller at the Museum’s Lurgashall watermill, describes the milling process as it would have been for the rural folk of South East England in the 17th century:
“The main difference between 17th century mills (like ours) and medieval mills is the use of a lot of cast iron – they were able to cast components much more accurately. Here we have gears that will transfer the drive from the watermill through the pit wheel at the back, up to the great spur wheel and then on to the mill stones.”
“Our watermill would have undergone many tweaks over the past 400-500 years; certainly the use of a lot of wood would have necessitated repairs and replacement parts. The current machinery on display dates from the mid 19th century and depicts the pinnacle of water-driven, stone-ground milling technology. After this point, industrial milling took over at the start of the industrial revolution.”
“Lots of our visitors appreciate the machinery as it’s something everyone can understand. With a lot of food produced nowadays, you have no idea how it’s made; here you can actually see what moves what. You know that the whole grain goes through, then flour comes through at the end. We haven’t changed anything, we haven’t added anything to it, we haven’t taken anything away. I think people appreciate that we can still do it! A lot of comments we receive at the watermill are about the use of free energy because we’re using the water, so our visitors appreciate that side of it as well.”
The wholemeal flour produced by the Museum’s millers is precisely that; whole grains of Solstice wheat, sourced from farms all over the South of England, milled using traditional techniques. We think that makes it rather special.
Watch the mill in action
Visitors can see the watermill in action here at Museum – it’s almost always open (except for essential maintenance). Come and try using the mill’s very own hand-turned quern and purchase a bag of our flour from the Museum shop. There’s a bread recipe printed on the back of every bag.
Find out more about a typical day in the watermill from Lurgashall here.
References and sources: