Pandemic-Baking Britain Has an ‘Obscene’ Need for Flour

A week before Britain came to a standstill in mid-March, the Wessex Mill found itself fielding nearly 600 calls a day requesting one of the country’s hottest commodities: flour.

The mill in Oxfordshire has produced nearly 13,000 small bags of flour each day during the coronavirus pandemic, a fourfold increase. Demand led Emily Munsey, a flour miller who runs the business with her father, to hire more staff and add afternoon and night shifts to keep the mill running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the first time in its 125-year history.

“It’s been very challenging as a company. The amount of work we’ve all had to do has increased a huge amount,” said Ms.

Munsey, who has since scaled back to five days a week, though still around the clock, to give employees a weekend break. “Demand remains consistently obscene.”


Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times

Commercial mills produce nearly four million tons of flour each year in Britain, according to the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers. With much of the country stuck at home, baking has surged, and retail-size flour bags have become scarce on grocery shelves.

The coronavirus outbreak has flooded social media with #coronavirusbaking and #quarantine cookies. Yeast is in short supply, and butter sales have soared.

In April, Google searches for cake, bread and flour skyrocketed.

The desire for flour has led some baking Britons to buy commercial-size sacks (weighing up to 70 pounds), some to try new recipes and others to monetize the shortage, with bags of flour going on eBay for more than £85.

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For many, baking serves as a respite from chaos. “One of the ways to interrupt anxiety is to let other senses take over,” the British culinary author and television star Nigella Lawson told The Guardian.

Artisanal mills are feeling the surge in demand, according to the Traditional Cornmillers Guild. A traditional water-powered mill in northeast England was inundated with a 500 percent increase in demand and had to close its online shop.

Another, on a 1,000-year-old milling site in the country’s south, ceased production in 1970 but has restarted to supply flour to local shops.

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Wessex Mill can’t easily meet demand with its traditional flour mill, which is slower than facilities that use modern methods. Ms. Munsey’s family founded it in 1895 in Oxford on the River Thames, but the original building burned down in the 1950s.

Now located in Wantage, in Oxfordshire, the mill is electric powered and operates on a secondhand 1940s roller mill installed by her grandfather.

Each day, a truck loads 27 tons of wheat bought from local farmers. It is stored in silos before being cleaned, then stripped of chaff, the scaly protective casing. Water is added to soften the bran, a layer of the wheat kernel, to create bran flakes rather than bran powder.

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The grain is slowly split open using steel rollers lined with small teeth, then sieved of wheat germ and bran.

The remaining endosperm, the kernel’s starchy interior, is ground to produce white flour. Bran flakes are either sent to a local farmer for pig feed or added with wheat germ to create brown or whole wheat flour.

“We’re an artisan flour mill,” said Ms. Munsey, whose customers include wholesalers and bakeries across Britain that order up to 10 tons of flour a week. “We’re not someone who has previously produced vast quantities of flour, and now people just want lots and lots and lots of flour.”

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Munsey said the mill had stocked up on paper bags for Brexit.Credit…Alex Atack for The New York Times

The frenzy has also made securing paper bags challenging, but Ms. Munsey had stock prepared. “We’ve mostly just eaten through our Brexit stockpile,” she said. A new machine can label 2,000 bags in 20 minutes.

The problem in Britain isn’t merely a flour shortage but the industry’s inability to package small bags quickly enough.

Large, commercial milling sites produce 99 percent of the flour in Britain. They typically provide 16-kilogram, or about 35-pound, bags of flour to bakeries, so shifting to retail bags, which make up only a sliver of the market, has proved difficult.

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“It’s unprecedented,” said Alex Waugh, the director general of the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers. “For more than a month now, the output of flour for home baking has been double the normal level,” increasing to four million bags a week.

Small flour bags have been so scarce that the supermarket chains Morrisons and Sainsbury’s have taken matters into their own hands: selling 35-pound bags of flour or portioning it into small paper bags.

The coronavirus outbreak has also ignited demand for flour across many European countries. In France, market research by Nielsen showed that demand doubled in March.

In Italy, it reached its highest level since World War II.

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As Britain eases out of lockdown restrictions, Ms.

Munsey hopes that new customers will continue to use Wessex Mill flour, find new skills and maybe take up more home baking.

But during the first few months of the crisis, her exhaustion overpowered her desire to bake.

“If you bake bread flour, you need to dust the surfaces,” she said, “and wiping up any more flour when you get home is just beyond me.”

ImageCredit…Alex Atack for The New York Times