Mill It Yourself: a history of home milling

Mill It Yourself: a history of home milling

by Amy Oboussier

Our summer sale on Mockmill table-top domestic mills is now on - save up to £90. There's no better time to start milling at home to enjoy the full flavour and nutrition of the freshest flour possible.

Milling your own flour may seem a novel concept but there's a long tradition of domestic milling.

Since the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, cereal grains have been a key staple food (grown and eaten hand in hand with pulses) and bread, in many forms, has provided a large part of our energy requirements, right up to today.

But to turn grain into bread, you need a mill. Milling in the modern world is an industrialised process, carried out on a large scale but largely out of sight and out of mind. This wasn't always the way.

The persistence of home milling

Even after the introduction and spread of water and wind-powered mills from the 12th century, many continued to mill grain at home. Contrary to the conventional historical linear perspective of economic progress and an assumption of a steady move from hand-milling to superior mechanised milling, domestic milling remained important, with an estimated 20% of all grain still milled at home in the fourteenth century. 

As is often the case with bread, milling has always been a highly political subject. On medieval feudal estates peasant farmers often had to take their grain to the lord of the manor's mill to be ground into flour. Payment was made in kind for the privilege of using the mill and often a communal oven for baking, an expense peasant farmers could often ill afford

For economy, some families milled grain at home using pot querns. A pot quern consisted of two stones, the larger forming a base and a smaller stone that rotated inside it. Grain was fed through a hole in the centre of the smaller stone and ground between the two stones. 

Landowners resented the loss of income and forced laws banning home milling. Under Scots thirlage, vassals were "thirled" to the feudal mill and had to pay for its upkeep. Elsewhere hand mills and querns were broken up or confiscated. Today, complete querns from the medieval period are typically found in remote areas, where home milling was able to continue uninterrupted until recent times.

Autonomy, purity and quality

The end of feudalism saw some resurgence in home milling, offering people more autonomy over their grain, flour and bread. Many rural households kept a grain mill and even those used primarily for grinding oats and barley for animal feed could be used for household flour when the local mill broke down.

Another reason for milling at home was the widespread problem of adulteration and short weighing. Millers came to be seen with suspicion and were often accused of keeping back measures of flour or bran or adulterating flour with inferior grains.

William Cobbett, the 18th century Surreyfarmer and pamphleteer, recommended the use of a hand-operated mill that could be 'turned by a man and a stout boy' or a pony. It would have been a gruelling job, taking one hour to grind just one bushel of grain, about 20kg. But the cost of labour to grind one bushel was the similar to that charged by a miller and the resulting flour was of better quality and without adulteration.

Milling technology

Over the years, home milling technology improved. In Elizabeth David's book English Bread and Yeast Cookery, she describes a home mill from 1856 that separates the flour from the bran. This machine predated the roller milling method of producing white flour used today. "It had a built-in cylindrical bolting drum or 'dressing apparatus' through which three grades of flour, plus the bran could be produced simultaneously, each falling into different compartments of a box-like drawer underneath the bolting drum".

In the 1900s, home mills saw another resurgence in popularity for reasons of health and flavour. Flour then, just as today, varied in quality, and a good way to ensure that flour was fresh and unadulterated was to buy whole grains and mill it yourself.

Modern home milling

Today, increased awareness of the poor quality of much industrially produced bread has inspired a new generation of home bakers to seek the most nutritious and flavourful bread. It's a small step from baking and eating good bread to being sure of using the best and freshest possible flour from grain of known provenance.

The latest generations of home mills, including the excellent Mockmill range from Germany, provides the opportunity to conveniently mill good quality flour in small batches.

Benefits of home milling

  • Nutrition: Freshly milled flour provides the optimum nutrition of the grain. Whole grains are simply seeds, holding the nutrients and 'life' for the next generation's plant inside a layer of bran. Once the grain is split or milled, the bran is broken and its contents exposed. Over time the fats in the germ oxidise and the nutrients degrade.
  • Taste: Just as freshly ground coffee tastes and smells better than pre-ground beans, so the smell and flavour of freshly milled flour is richer and creamier than aged flour, with complex grassy and nutty notes.
  • Diversity: A home mill offers the opportunity to mill an endlessly diverse range of grains, seeds and pulses, either singly or as blends. Follow the teachings of Vanessa Kimbell and blend in botanical ingredients like edible flours, herbs, and spices. Experiment with alternative flours and heritage grains. Green peas, chickpeas, oats, barley... the world is your oyster!

Get milling

Our Home Milling collection offers the Mockmill range of domestice mills, perfect table-top domestic mills that allow you to enjoy the full flavour and nutrition of the freshest flour possible.

We have a wide range of grits for milling, including several different varieties and populations of wheat, alternative grains like rye, quinoa and barley, and pulses and seeds. Christine McFadden’s book Flour: A Comprehensive Guide is an ideal companion for anyone wanting to experiment with alternative flours.

Amy Oboussier
Amy Oboussier


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