Wheat and Bread: Growing, Harvesting, and Baking With Wheat

How to grow wheat, including wheat varieties, soil, winter or spring wheat, sowing, harvesting, mowing, drying, threshing, winnowing, milling, wheat and bread baking, and using yeast.
By John and Sally Seymour
May/June 1975
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Chart showing the differences between white flour and whole wheat flour. 
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Note: All content here excerpted with permission from Farming for Self-Sufficiency: Independence on a 5-Acre Farm by John and Sally Seymour. Copyright 1973. 

Ah, the vicissitudes of time. Two years ago, when there were NO currently relevant small-scale-farming introductory handbooks available, many of us welcomed the publication of Richard Langer's Grow !t! with open arms. Now that we're all older and more experienced, however, some folks find it increasingly easy to criticize that breakthrough beginner's guide (see the Feedback sections of MOTHER NOS. 23, 24 and 25).

Which brings us to another breakthrough book that is just as important (probably more so) now as Grow It! was two years ago... and which may well come up for its share of criticism in another 24 months or so.

Be that as it may, John and Sally Seymour's record of 18 successful years on a shirttail-sized homestead in England is important now and should offer welcome encouragement to today's back-to-the-landers, both real and imaginary. I started serializing this book in my MOTHER EARTH NEW NO. 25 issue and I'm sure that many readers will want a personal copy for their home libraries. — MOTHER

Wheat and Bread

Without bread, all is misery. The Scripture truly calls it the staff of life: and it may be called, too, the pledge of peace and happiness in the labourer's dwelling.  

WILLIAM COBBETT: Cottage Economy  

In case anybody should read this book who just does not know what the cultivation of the land and the growing of crops are all about at all, I will here describe, in the simplest way that I can, what is involved in these operations. Before man comes on the scene land is probably either covered with forest or with grass. If covered with forest men can cut down the trees, burn them, scratch the ground between the stumps and sow seed. In the forested parts of the Tropics this is how much farming is done. It is easy to cultivate this land, because under the trees there was no covering of grass. The land, when the trees have gone, is bare, and there are none of the seeds of the weeds that make arable farming difficult. There is, too, a big supply of plant nutrients in the soil, enriched as the latter is by centuries of leaf-fall. After five or ten years, though, arable weeds begin to creep in, the humus is used up, the land becomes infertile, and the cultivators move on and clear another piece of forest. The piece they have left regenerates itself, trees grow again, and in twenty or thirty years the chena cultivators, as they are called in Ceylon as an example, can come back, cut and burn again, and enjoy another five or ten years of profitable farming. There is nothing wrong with this kind of husbandry at all provided there are not too many people and enough forest. When populations expand, though, it becomes impossible: the forest does not have time to regenerate itself.

But in temperate climates the cultivator is more likely to be confronted with grass. What then does he do? If he sprinkles the seed of whatever it is he wants to grow on top of the grass nothing will happen to it except that the birds will eat it. So that is obviously no good. Somehow he must get rid of the grass. Now, either he can skim it off (that is what the old 'breast plough' was for) and remove it and either burn it or let it rot. Or he can bury it. The former course takes much labour, but the latter operation can be done by machinery (i.e. a plough) motivated by animal power or engine. Also it has the advantage that it does not rob the land of nutrients and humus. So he ploughs it. If it is a very small piece of land he digs it, which has the same effect.

He leaves it long enough for the grass to rot. He then probably ploughs it again. He must now get the earth in a soft and workable enough state to be able to put his seed below the surface of the ground where the birds won't get it. So he drags the land about with pointed instruments, such as we rail harrows or cultivators. He goes on doing this until the land is soft enough, and the 'tilth' fine enough (meaning that the bigger clods have been broken up) to make it possible to get his seed in. The smaller the seed the finer the tilth needed. To get his seed in he either scatters it over the surface of the ground and then drags harrows about over it, or hand rakes if it is a small piece of ground, or he drills the seed in. The drill is like a pipe with no back to it which is dragged through the loose soil while the seeds are dropped down the pipe. The pipe opens a furrow, or tiny trench, the seed falls in, and the earth closes in on the seed after the drill has gone past.

Now the seeds begin to grow, but there are sure to be weed seeds in the ground too and they begin to grow also. If the crop is sown very thickly (like wheat) it may grow fast enough to smother the young weeds, and that is all right. If it is not that sort of crop (but is what we call a 'row crop' — like turnips) then the husbandman must give his crop an unfair advantage over the weeds by cutting the weeds out with some implement. Normally this will be a hoe: either a hand hoe or a hoe pulled by a horse or tractor. The latter can only go between the rows of course: only the hand hoe can kill the weeds in the rows between the individual plants. If the weather is dry the weeds he has hoed out will lie on the ground and die. If it rains they will get their roots in again and go on growing. Then the husbandman must hoe them again. It the crop beats the weeds he will have a crop. If the weeds beat the crop he will have only weeds. There is only one crop I know that just does not want weeding at all; and that is the Jerusalem artichoke. This will grow — weeds or no weeds — and make such a dense jungle that it will smother every weed underneath it. Wheat and other corn is sown so thickly, and grows so fast, that it may beat annual weeds, but the land must be fairly clean of perennial weeds (chiefly spear, or couch, grass) otherwise you will not get very much of a crop.

When the crop is ripe it is harvested. The husbandman must now plough or dig the land up again, to bury the weeds that have grown (and there will be some), to make the land soft enough again to get his drill coulters into it, or the points of his harrow if he intends to broadcast his seed, and to aerate the soil, for this stimulates the aerobic bacteria which benignly break down the waste vegetable matter and turn it back into plant nutrients again. He will also cultivate or harrow. The cultivator is like a giant harrow; it has long teeth that go deep into the soil and take much more power to pull them than a harrow, which has a lot of little spikes sticking down out of a framework. A thorn bush will do, and I have used one.

The husbandman must wage constant war against weeds. When he does not have a crop on the land he attacks weeds by allowing the weeds to grow and — before they seed — ploughing them in or otherwise killing them. Then, if he has time, he will let another crop of weeds grow and treat them the same. If a field gets too 'foul', that is grows too many weeds, then he may 'bare fallow' it, that is leave it for a summer without growing a crop on it. During this summer he constantly lets a crop of weeds grow, then ploughs them in or drags them out with the cultivator, and then repeats the process. The modern husbandman cannot abandon land when it becomes too weedy and move on and plough up the wilderness. His husbandry must be a self-regenerating process.

Also the husbandman must put back nutrients into the soil. You cannot keep taking large quantities of nutrients out of a piece of land and put nothing back for ever. The land will get poorer and poorer and eventually become sterile. In a primitive economy what is taken out of the land is put back again. This happened in England until sewage started to be dumped into the sea. Now we make up what we lose by dumping sewage by importing potash and phosphates from mineral deposits in various parts of the world and extracting nitrogen from the air by electricity. It is perfectly easy to treat sewage in such a manner that it can be put back on the land again, and does not have to be dumped into the sea. A big capital investment is needed to do this, but the money is got back after not many years in the sale of fertilizer.

Every civilization that the world has so far seen has been founded on corn, by which I mean crops of the grass family. The Mesopotamian and Indus Valley civilizations, the Egyptian civilization, the North China civilization, were founded on wheat. The south Indian, Sinhalese, Bengali and South Chinese and Indonesian civilizations were founded on rice. As Europe, belatedly, was occupied by civilized people they brought wheat with them. Classical Greek civilization was founded on wheat until the Greeks ruined their topsoil, whereupon they had to grow subsoil crops like the vine and the olive, and become a trading and ship-building nation and get their wheat from other places. The Roman Empire was founded on wheat. When the Romans too, ruined their topsoil, and turned the wheatlands of North Africa into a desert, their civilization collapsed in ruins. It is hard to think of any other food that would give sufficient security from famine, and energy, to a people to allow them to develop that fragile thing, a civilization, excepting one of the graminae. True, potatoes have been the foundation of rather inferior civilizations in South America, but I don't think the Parthenon could ever have risen up from a diet of spuds.

So we will begin with wheat. Before you begin growing wheat remember what has to be done to it. It must be harvested, dried, threshed, winnowed, cleaned, ground, and baked before you can eat it. You can do all these things by hand, but they can be done very much less laboriously by machine. Maybe you would be advised to trade some other product that you can produce more easily with the rest of the world for flour? To buy bread from the bakers is absolute nonsense: you are paying through the nose for something you can quite easily make yourself (just don't believe the people who tell you it's as cheap to buy bread as to bake it — they just don't know what they are talking about). But you can easily buy flour and bake your own bread. Better still, far better in fact in every way, is to buy your wheat, straight from a farmer if you can get it, store it in ordinary gunny bags, turning the bags every so often and keeping them on wood — not on cold concrete, but in a nice dry place — and grind your own flour in the sort of small mill that we shall discuss later.

But we have grown our own wheat on a garden scale, quite successfully, threshed the corn by bashing it on the back of a chair, winnowed it by tossing it up in the wind, and ground it, God help us, in a coffee grinder. And it has made the most excellent bread: no better than other good bread made from English or Welsh wheat but not a whit worse. For communities of any size it would be most sensible and economical to grow your own bread wheat. We will discuss the possible ways of harvesting, etc., when we come to them.

A word first of all about the often misunderstood business of 'strong' wheat and 'weak' wheat, or 'hard' and 'soft', and the widely held superstition that wheat grown in the British Isles is 'weak' or 'soft' and therefore incapable of being turned into good bread. Well, the battles of Agincourt and Crecy were won by men reared up on bread made from English wheat, whether it was 'soft' or 'hard', and 'hard' wheat was never heard of in the British Isles, one supposes, until the opening up of North America as a wheat-exporting country in the nineteenth century. The fact is that commercial bakers prefer 'hard' wheat because it yields the largest number of loaves per sack of flour. For that reason and for that reason only. And the reason why 'hard' wheat yields more loaves per sack is that the more tenuous gluten of hard wheat is capable of with standing greater pressure of gas (bread is 'leavened' by carbonic acid gas produced by the yeast organism) and therefore the bread contains larger holes; also flour made from hard wheat can absorb more water. Bread made from soft wheat may have 40 per cent of its weight in water; bread made from hard wheat up to 75 per cent. Water and gas cost the baker very little, if indeed anything at all, and so if he can sell water and gas for the same price as flour (which costs him quite a lot) he is on to a good thing. Therefore bakers shy away from English wheat. Now Sally has baked our bread for the last eighteen years always using English wheat, and I'll warrant that there is no other bread in the world better than it. She uses whole meal because we happen to like whole meal (not because we have any dietetic theories about it — although it may not be a coincidence that when our family of six goes to the dentist on its annual visit — there is never anything for the dentist to do) but when we compare her whole meal loaves with any bought whole meal loaves we can get hers are always superior. But her loaves are closer textured than bought loaves, because the flour that she uses being of 'soft' English wheat, the dough will not retain so much gas in it. In other words, we don't have to eat so much hole. Also her bread contains less water per pound of loaf. One requires far less of bread made from soft wheat than one does of bread made from hard wheat: the former is more 'filling' and certainly far more nutritious measured pound for pound — simply because there is nothing very nutritious about carbon dioxide and water. The miller also can make more money out of foreign hard wheat than he can out of home-grown soft, simply because with modern methods of milling separation of the endosperm from the rest of the grain is easier with hard wheat than it is with soft. With whole meal milling this does not matter, but for the production of white flour it does. The baker and the miller can both make more money if they use imported hard wheats and not home-grown soft ones. But for the self-supporter there is no advantage in using hard wheat. He is not out to make money out of anybody. I can't compare bread made from soft wheat with bread made from hard because we never have made any from hard wheat flour and really you can't call the wrapped pap one buys from the shops bread at all. But we will discuss the flour and bread aspects of wheat when we get to them. For the moment we will discuss the growing of the stuff.

Wheat Varieties

There is such a bewildering selection of varieties nowadays that one could fill a whole book with them. This is because the growing of wheat by monoculture has resulted in a large selection of virulent diseases, fungoid and bacterial and virus, and plant breeders are ever trying to keep ahead of the evolution of the disease organism by breeding resistant strains of wheat. So far they have more or less succeeded. Hardly a year goes by without the announcement that some new strain of smut-resistant, or rust-resistant, or other disease-resistant wheat has come on the market. But then in a few years the farming press records sadly that the resistance of this particular strain seems to have vanished. What has happened, of course, is that the disease organisms have evolved too; they also know as much as the scientists about natural and artificial selection — maybe a bit more. Both experts and farmers are becoming more and more concerned about the disease problem in white straw crops. But the homesteader need not concern himself about such problems. We have grown wheat, oats or barley for several years now and have never had any hint of any disease. This is because we never grow white straw where white straw has been the year before, and our soil is healthy and organically alive. So, in selecting a wheat variety, I would plump for a wheat with a good strong straw (one that does not get blown down too easily) and a good fat grain, and leave disease resistance to people who get disease. If you want a long straw for thatching, or for making corn dollies, or for any other purpose, then get a long-strawed wheat, such as Marris Widgeon or Flamingo. If you do not have your own ideas on which variety of wheat to plant then ask your neighbours, or the local N.A.A.S. officer. If you can get hold of one of the old breeds of wheat like Square Head's Master, or Little Joss, Victor or Yeoman, Rivet or Japhet, do so. Yeoman, by the way, used to be the 'hardest' or 'strongest' of the English wheats, so if you feel you must have a hard wheat get that. All these strains of wheat have been retained for breeding purposes, and places such as Rothampstead will certainly have them, but whether they will sell them or not I do not know. Last year we planted Attlee and it was very good.

Soil

Wheat will not grow on light, poor soil. If your land is light you must manure it and 'do' it well, maybe for some years, before it will grow good wheat. If your land is heavy and strong you will need a strong-strawed variety, or it will 'lodge', that is fall down, owing to the weight of the crop.

Winter or Spring Wheat

Another thing you must decide is whether to sow winter or spring wheat. Winter wheat should be sown, in England or Wales, in September or October (copy your neighbours). It grows a little before the winter sets in and then remains dormant until the spring. It then gets off to a head start, grows a heavier crop than spring wheat and can be harvested earlier. Spring wheat is sown in late February or March. It does not give such a heavy crop as winter wheat, but in very cold wintered countries winter wheat will not survive. In Russia and North America spring-sown wheat is almost universal.

Winter wheat can come nicely after potatoes. After the potatoes have been ploughed out the land has only to be cultivated a few times to make a seed bed for wheat. Wheat does not need too fine a seed bed. Potatoes are always manured heavily, and this is good preparation for a succeeding wheat crop. If wheat comes after 'seeds', meaning a grass and clover ley, you can just plough the ley and broadcast the wheat on the ploughed land and then harrow it in.

Sowing Seed

Sowing can be done by drilling or broadcasting. Broadcasting is the oldest method, very Biblical. It is one of the most satisfying occupations in the world. You split a sack down, tie two corners of it to make a kind of bag-sling, hang it over one shoulder, fill it with wheat, and walk down the field scattering it. Some people use both hands; I prefer one. Winter wheat should be broadcast at the rate of about three bushels an acre, spring wheat perhaps four. Winter wheat tillers more — that is one seed branches out into numerous plants, therefore you don't need so much seed. As to how to broadcast, so long as you are covering the ground evenly with seed, leaving no 'holidays' (bare patches), nor clumps, and making your three or four bushels more or less stretch to an acre, you are doing all right. The only way to learn is to use the common sense that God has given you. If there are no parallel lines, like furrows, along the field that you can use as guidelines put a white wand at each end of each stretch that you sow (or a white rag on a bush) and walk straight for that.

With a drill you need less.seed, perhaps a bushel less an acre. It is noteworthy that where we live in Wales the farmers, who all tried seed drills, have mostly gone back to hand broadcasting of oats and barley. They don't grow wheat nowadays, although they used to. Whether you drill or broadcast it is a good plan to harrow afterwards: you must in the case of broadcasting or the birds will get all your seed. Then all you have to do is to wait for the crop to get ripe and reap it, although it helps to run a roller over it in the spring and maybe give it a hundredweight an acre of nitrogenous fertilizer. If wireworm are a trouble rolling helps to restrict their nefarious movements. If you run hens over your land after you have ploughed it you won't have many wireworms; unringed pigs are also doughty wireworm slayers.

Harvesting Wheat

Cut the wheat as late as you can before it begins to shed — that is knock out when you cut it. You can cut it with a sickle, a scythe, a grass mower, a binder, or a combine.

The sickle is laborious beyond words. The scythe in the hands of a good man should cut an acre a day, but it will take two other people coming behind the scythe to bind the sheaves. Traditionally this work was done by women and children: the use of the scythe is a man's job if there ever was one.

Mowing

Mowing, as cutting with the scythe is called, is an arduous but delightful job. The blade should frequently be whetted with a rough stone (grass needs a very fine-grained stone), and the throat of the mower should frequently be whetted with not-too-strong home brewed ale.

If you cut with a grass mower, either horse drawn or tractor drawn, you will have to go behind and tie the sheaves. A sheaf is a bundle of straw, grain all at one end, that you can comfortably hug, tied either with a tie of straw, or a piece of twine. The knot for tying with its own straw is made thus: take a handful of straw from the bundle, pass it round the sheaf, twist the ends together and tuck them under the tie itself.

The binder does this job for you. But do not expect two horses to pull a binder for long. It takes three big horses to pull a fair-sized binder and it is killing work. An acre of land will give you at least a ton (may give you two) of wheat. Do you need more than that? If you don't, cannot you spare a day or two to cut it with a scythe? A binder is a huge great cumbersome machine to cut an acre or two of corn a year with. Like shooting a gnat with an elephant rifle. The combine is out of the question unless you hire one. It then does your cutting, threshing and winnowing in one. But you have to dry the corn, and we will deal with that later.

Assuming you use any other method except a combine — you will be faced with a field-full of corn sheaves. As soon as you can, put them up into stooks or shocks — or traives — the name depending upon what part of the country you live in. You do this by picking up two sheaves, banging the butts of the sheaves hard into the ground to settle them, and rubbing their heads together. Thus they stand up. Put two more alongside them — then more until you have six or eight sheaves — making a sort of shed. Now if it rains they will get wet — but they will get dry again. If it blows a gale they will fall over and you will have to put them up again. Now if you live in a dryish area you can leave the corn in the stook for say three weeks. Then cart it and stack it in ricks, but see the chapter on barley (in the next issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS) for 'mows'. For small fields a circular rick is best. Mark out a circle on the ground, lay a platform of brushwood (not old sheets of corrugated iron), build a base of sheaves with the butts of the outer ring of sheaves outwards, and build layer after layer, like this, keeping the rick level — not hollow in the middle by God — the outer lot of sheaves always sloping down outwards so as to cast the rain that blows into them, the walls leaning slightly outwards until you get to the eaves, then pull the layers in until, after a steeply-pitched roof, you come to a point.

Thatch this with long threshed straw, or reeds if you can get them. If you use threshed straw you must chuck a pile of straw onto the ground and wet it well. Then you pull it — drag handfuls out from the bottom. In its wet condition the handfuls will come out straight. Lay the handfuls in bundles. Get the bundles up to the eaves of your rick, lay them flat (say two inches thick), and pin them down with twine held down with 'brortches', which are sharpened sticks hammered in to the rick with a mallet. When you have done one complete circle do another, half on top of it but higher up. Go on like this until you get to the top. Then make a sort of cone of straw and tie its neck tight up above, and if you have the imagination and skill to fashion a corn dolly to go right at the top, and add a final flourish to the job, you will have something to be proud of.

Drying Wheat

The corn inside this rick will go on drying out, maturing and improving, until you run out of last year's wheat and start threshing it. Wheat thus dries and matures naturally, and is better than combined and artificial dried wheat. There is one way you can get your wheat threshed without threshing it. That is throw it to the chickens. They will eat the grain and use the straw for litter.

However, if you have had it combined you will have to dry it, or to store it in an hermetically sealed container. If conditions were fine when it was cut it may be enough to leave it out of doors in the sun and wind in gunny bags for a few weeks, turning the gunny bags once a day. The bags must stand on boards or corrugated iron; not on the ground. Then take your bags into your barn and store them, not touching each other, and turn them every three or four days. It is hard work. Or you can have the grain mechanically dried by a man who owns a grain dryer. He will charge you for it and you will have all the bother of getting the wheat to him and getting it back again. Or do what our Neolithic ancestors did and keep the grain hermetically sealed. They used to do this by digging pits in chalk or well-drained soil, lining the pits with basket work, putting the grain in and sealing the top carefully with clay. The fact is, hermetically sealed grain generates carbon dioxide which inhibits the growth of moulds and other organisms which would otherwise ruin damp grain. This principle, after having been lost for four thousand years, has been rediscovered in the last ten, and those tall, rather beautiful, metal grain silos rising up near farmsteads mostly contain undried grain, straight from the combine harvester, and are hermetically sealed to prevent deterioration. This grain so far has been used only for animal food: I am not aware that 'moist-stored' wheat has yet been milled for human consumption, but our Neolithic ancestors did it. The Romans built elaborate under-floor flues, in which they burnt wood for the drying of wheat.

The Sinhalese get over the grain drying problem very aesthetically by building the most beautiful baskets of cadjan or woven coconut fronds, some of them as big as houses, and supported on stilts. The paddy (which is the correct name for unhulled rice) is stored in these, and the movement of air through it dries it out. Some African tribes (notably the Kikuyu) store maize and millet by the same method.

But nothing can beat, in the climate of the British Isles, the good old method of ricking the corn, in the straw, thatching it, and then threshing it out in the winter after it has naturally dried. If you have, by the way, a Dutch barn or something like that, by all means build your rick in its shelter and you don't have to go to all the trouble of thatching it. The Dutch have a marvellous method. They put four tall poles up, sling alight roof inside them on four ropes which pass over four pulleys at the tops of the four poles, haul the roof up to the top while they build their rick underneath it, then lower the roof down to fit comfortably over the rick. When they want to start threshing they simply haul the roof up again and chuck the loose sheaves down. They use this system mostly for hay, for which it is perfect, for it does away with the laborious use of the stack-knife, but it works with grain too.

Threshing

First we have got to thresh the grain. You can take the sheaves and bang the heads of corn over the edge of a barrel or the back of a chair (or a 'threshing horse' made for the purpose with several parallel horizontal bars). The grain will fly all over the place and so you must have an unencumbered floor. This method is still much practised on the west coast of Ireland. Or you can pile the straw higgledy-piggledy in a big heap on the floor and wallop it with a flail. Or you can lay the straw on a clean, hard floor and drive animals over it as the Sinhalese do with their rice and the Spaniards their wheat. Or you can get a threshing machine. The latter has the advantage that it will winnow it too. (To winnow is to blow the lighter chaff out of the grain.) There used to be plenty of little barn threshing machines — every farm had one, often driven by a water wheel, or a horse walking around in a circle pulling a bar. If you could get one of these you would be well away. But the bashing over a chair method is quite satisfactory for small quantities (say up to a ton) and is quite fun.

Winnowing

If you spread a tarpaulin on the ground on a windy day, and pour your threshed grain and chaff on to it from a height, the wind will winnow your grain — that is the chaff will blow away and leave the clean wheat. There is nothing difficult about this at all. The chaff is good, mixed with oats, for your horse. You can sometimes pick up a winnowing machine from a farm sale: it is a good buy.

Milling Wheat

This used to be done by rubbing two stones together. The quern was a refinement of this — two round stones, one on top of the other, the top one revolved by woman-power. Then came the big stone mill which is in use in many places today: once driven by slavepower (that is what Samson was doing when he was 'eyeless in Gaza among slaves'), then horses or other animals, then wind or water, then steam, now diesel. Stone milling is a highly skilled profession, and far out of the scope of this book. If you can get a stone mill, and know how to dress the stones when they need it, or can find somebody who does know, you are lucky.

Otherwise there is the steel plate mill which is to be found on every farm, which has two steel plates, one of which revolves against the other, and this is fine for grist (that is meal for animal feeding) but murders wheat rather than mills it. And there is the modern small electrically-driven mill or coffee grinder. This is what you will probably come down to in the end, and it is perfectly satisfactory. The large Kenwood with coffee-grinder attachment is OK.

Industrial milling today is a very complicated process. Before the eighteenth century wheat was stone ground and often passed through a sieve to get the coarsest of the husk out. This resulted in good whole meal bread. Just before 1700 an Austrian invented 'high milling' which consisted of grinding the flour very fine and passing it through fine cloths. This resulted in white flour, because only the endosperm, or starch of the grain, was fine enough to pass through the cloths. Most of the later windmills in England had things called bolters towards the end of the wind era. These did this job of passing the flour through a 'bolter cloth'.

Nowadays the whole process is complicated in the extreme. The wheat goes through a cockle cylinder which gets out small weed seeds, a barley cylinder which gets out large ones, a scourer which is a cylinder lined with emery, a washer which is what it says it is (the wheat floats while the rubbish sinks), whizzers which centrifuge the wheat to dry it, the dry brusher, and then the main thing — the break roller. This splits the grain and sets the endosperm free. The little bits of endosperm are then called semolina. Then come the grinding rollers, or reduction rollers which grind the semolina into fine white flour. The flour then goes through silk screens and the germ is all got out. (Hovis process this germ separately and then return it to the flour.) But for white flour it is left out. As little as 20 per cent of the whole meal may be extracted as flour in the case of 'patent flour', but 'straight run' flour is about 70 per cent of the grain. The rest goes for animal food. Lucky animals, because they get the best of it. The flour then has various additives put to it: chlorine dioxide to bleach it to an even whiter-than-white whiteness so beloved by the working class housewife (who is still reacting from the time when the upper class could afford white bread and the working classes could not), ammonium persulphate, potassium bromide which causes the dough to retain more carbon dioxide and therefore make a bigger loaf for less flour, glyceryl mono-stearate or polyoxy ethelene stearate which are anti-staling agents — in other words they make the stuff keep longer — and sometimes Epsom salts or Glauber salts. Ground chalk is often added to it: in fact in England the law is that some calcium must be added to it to take the place of the calcium so laboriously milled out of it, and certain vitamins are added too.

Some grain is milled as whole meal and that is exactly what it says. Nothing is added to it and nothing is taken away. This can be finely or coarsely ground according to taste. Other grain is milled as wheat meal. This has the bran removed. What you will get, if you mill your grain yourself will be whole meal.

Baking with Wheat: Bread Recipe

As for baking, nothing, in cooking, is easier except possibly boiling an egg. But it is very easy to go wrong in the latter operation. I am a terrible cook, but I never had the slightest difficulty in baking perfect bread, and nor need anybody else who is fit to live outside an institution.

To bake bread do this last thing at night:

To make six medium loaves take four and a half pints of a water about blood heat (don't mess about with thermometers put in a mixing bowl, chuck in two ounces of salt and two ounces of sugar and a tablespoonful of yeast. When the yeast has dissolved pour in enough flour to make a sticky mush — such as you might feed to the pigs. Stir it well, make sure that every bit of flour is wetted. You must not have too much dough in the bowl or it will overflow when it rises.

Stand it in a warm place, out of draughts, and go to bed. The above operation takes about five minutes. If you have a stove that keeps in a'nights stand it near that.

In the morning stagger out of bed, go downstairs, dump some dry flour on a table (I am not going to use such culinary terms as a 'clean table' in this book — I shall leave that much to the common sense of my readers), dump the dough — which by now will have risen until it is overflowing the bowl — on to the flour, sprinkle dry flour on top of it and then comes the process of kneading, which takes a little practice. The aim is to make a moderately stiff dough, dry on the outside. At first when you begin to knead the dough will stick messily to your hands. Don't, whatever you do, wash it off with water. 'Wash' it off with more dry flour. Fling dry flour on top of the mass. Wherever it is wet — fling on dry flour. Push the mass away from you with the palms of your hands, and then pull it together again. Whenever it sticks to your hands 'wash' your hands again with dry flour and wash the table too. Soon it will stop sticking, and turn into a most satisfying lump of floury substance, delightful to roll about. Roll it about to your heart's content and then put a dollop in each baking tin. Only fill the tins three quarters full. There will be some left over; make little rolls of that and put them on an iron oven-plate. Make pretty scores on the tops of your loaves in the tins. Balance the tins on the cool side of the stove and cover with a cloth and leave to rise ('proof') yet again. Bread rises twice. Leave the rolls to rise too. When the rolls have risen pop them in the very hot oven. In ten minutes they will probably be done, and you will have splendid hot whole meal rolls for breakfast. After breakfast take the bread tins gently — and here is the whole skill of the thing — to jog them is to make them collapse and you'll get heavy bread. Do not jog them! Place them gently in the oven. After half an hour look at them, and if you wish to, gently change them round — the top ones to the bottom. In three quarters of an hour, if the oven is hot, they should be done. If the oven isn't hot you shouldn't be making bread. You can test them by tapping their undersides (if done they will sound hollow). Balance them on top of their tins to air well as they cool. You probably don't spend more than half an hour of the morning actually working with the bread: while you are waiting for things to happen you can be doing other things. If your flour is good, and fresh, the above method makes, quite simply, the best bread in the world: as superior to wrapped factory pap as good butter is to cheap margarine.

Below is a comparison of the food values of white flour and whole meal flour:

The wrapped-pap factory lobby always trots out the hoary old folk tale that the phytin which whole meal has and white flour hasn't inhibits the absorption of calcium in the human. What they forget to add is that four hours of fermentation in the dough lowers the phytin (phytic acid) content by 75 per cent which renders it practically harmless in this respect, also that habitual whole meal eaters develop an enzyme named phytase in their bodies which destroys any phytin that they do ingest. You have only to look at the teeth of any whole meal-bread-fed family to realize that they get enough calcium..

If the bread-maker wishes to be scientific he might know that the dough fermentation should be at about 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) and the temperature of his oven should be from 200 degrees to 240 degrees Celsius. At 60 degrees Celsius all yeast is killed. But you won't make any better bread because you know this.

If you are a North Indian you will probably prefer chapatis, or unleavened bread. These are made by mixing a very stiff dough of whole meal flour and water, with (common sense will prompt?) a pinch of salt; divide it into egg-shaped lumps, roll it out very thin (Indian cooks do it by clapping it between the palms — hence that persistent clapping noise that emanates from North Indian kitchens) and bake it on a very hot plate for not many seconds. Turn it over. (If you then throw it on the fire for a second it will inflate like a balloon.) The hub-cap of an American automobile placed over the fire makes a splendid hot plate, which is why so few American automobiles in North India have any hub-caps on them.

There are other things you can do with wheat. Soak it overnight then put it in the slow oven for three days. It jellifies and makes an ideal breakfast food, and when you eat it you don't have the feeling that you are helping to pay for somebody's vast advertising campaign.

Using Yeast

A word about that marvellous substance: yeast.

Yeast is a living organism, which will live and multiply at from 48 degrees Fahrenheit to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. It eats sugar and excretes carbon dioxide and alcohol. There are three main species: Saccharomyces cerevisiae: for beer and bread; Sacchanomyces ellipsoideus: for wine; Saccharomyces pasteurianus: for cider.

The grape wine and cider yeasts are always present on the skins of their respective fruits, so don't need to be added. Beer yeast should come from the top of the previous brew, not the bottom, for it is an aerobic yeast. Bread yeast can come from the bottom. We ferment our beer and bread with the same yeast, the beer mash tub providing enough for both — and many pounds to spare.

A recipe for making your own dried yeast:

3 ounces hops
3 1/2 pounds rye flour
7 pounds corn or barley meal
1 gallon water

Rub the hops and boil them in the water for half an hour. Strain. Stir in rye flour, then corn or barley meal. Knead and roll out very thin. Cut into circles with a tumbler and leave to dry hard in the sun. Wild yeast will infect the biscuits. To use it, crumble a biscuit and soak in warm water with sugar and salt in it and next day use as yeast. I have never done this but I have made 'sour dough' bread: Here your make your dough, make a hole in the top and put in a mixture of warm water, sugar and salt; leave in the warm for a day. If you are lucky it will ferment and you mix it up and make your dough. In South West Africa we made a lot of bread like this and it generally used to work. We also baked in a termite hill. You knocked a hole in the side of the hill, made sure that there was a chimney coming out at the top (the termites had already ensured that there was one almost all the way), built a hot fire in your new oven and kept it going for an hour or two until the termite hill was very hot indeed, drew the ashes and shoved in your bread and bunged the entrance and the chimney up. In an hour the bread was perfectly cooked, and so was anything else you liked to put in there.

The termites didn't like it at all.

It is labour, but what is exercise other than labour? Let a young woman bake a bushel once a week and she will do very well without phials and gallipots.  

WILLIAM COBBETT : Cottage Economy  


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