Where have all the flours gone? Supermarket shelves are pitifully empty, not just of plain and self raising, but also strong white, wholemeal and even the traditionally more fancy varieties like spelt, emmer and einkorn. My favourite sourdough starter has been languishing in the fridge since I ran out of its preferred sustenance, rye flour, and the other day I found myself making that banana bread with tapioca flour.
So how did matters come to this? After all, the loo paper crisis seems to have more or less resolved itself, so why, weeks into lockdown, are we still desperately seeking self-raising?
The reason for the dearth is more complex than simply increased demand, although that’s how it starts. Those of us with a bit more time at home are embracing baking with all the fervour of opening round in the Bake Off Tent. Google searches for bread recipes are up four fold from the numbers before lockdown, and Waitrose report that searches for yeast during March on their website are up a colossal 1,785 per cent compared to the previous month.
According to Alec Waugh of the National Association of British and Irish Millers (NABIM), until lockdown we were buying 2 million bags of flour a week - the equivalent of one bag every fourteen weeks, or a couple of Victoria sponges a month. Now we are taking home twice that - and wiping the shelves bare in scenes reminiscent of the pictures of Soviet supermarkets in the 1980s.
So what exactly is the problem? Britain is still producing the same amount of flour, and the mills are still running. We are close to self-sufficient in wheat, although we import some speciality flour (for baguettes or ciabatta say) and higher protein grain, mostly from Germany and North America, and export some of our home grown lower protein wheat.
Partly there was the element of surprise, as unlike Christmas and Pancake Day, when suppliers know to boost stocks, no one saw this coming. But the main issue is more prosaic: packaging. Or more specifically, the logistics of bundling up flour into the tiny (by wholesale standards) 1.5kg bags that we are used to buying.
Only four per cent of the UK’s massive flour output has traditionally gone to shops to be bought by home bakers in these small bags. The rest has been snapped up by professional bakers, caterers and restaurants, in sacks of 16kg or 25kg. Many of these businesses are not operating at the moment, so one would think there would be lots of excess flour around for shoppers to scoop up. Not so.
“Millers have increased the amount they can pack in retail sized bags to the maximum,” says Waugh, “and they are running packing lines 24/7, so they have doubled their normal production to 4 million bags a week. But they can’t do more than 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” It simply isn’t enough to meet demand. “Supermarkets are saying that if they put it out first thing it is gone by lunch time, and then they have to wait for the next delivery.”
Many of us have turned to mail order, but a swift look at websites reveal that many millers have stopped selling directly, and those that are have had to limit their sales. John Lister, the founder of Shipton Mill flour, which produces the gold-standard flour for many of the best bakeries in the country, explained that, quite apart from the packaging issue, they are not set up for processing large numbers of small orders.
“Normally we supply artisan bakers and top chefs who might order a tonne at a time. A tonne is a thousand 1kg bags - that’s a thousand phone calls or emails or queries.” Now, Lister says, they are doing about 10 times the usual volume of orders. “All our friends and all our family are coming in to help out, but it is different from an experienced team who know how to do it.”
Then there is the strain on the website, which at one point was fielding 10,000 visitors instead of the usual 40 or 50. “We have a queuing system as the website would just collapse. But there are a lot of people who get quite frustrated because we get it wrong or take too long. We can’t go faster though. Even loyal customers who have been with us for years are struggling and the phones are jammed from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.”
Just getting it to people is a challenge. “Courier companies and Royal Mail are hugely overwhelmed by the increased number of parcels, and there are limits to the number of parcels they can take and how often they can pick up. But,” adds Lister, “we are learning and trying to be better."
There is a third way now, as the National Association of British and Irish Millers (NABIM) have launched a new web-based map so we can pinpoint previously unavailable supplies, from bakeries, wholesalers and other outlets who wouldn’t usually be open to ordinary punters.
I checked out my local area - Bristol - and bingo! There were huge bags of plain flour, self raising and pizza flour (which is high protein so will work fine for bread) although no wholemeal bread flour. Waugh admits the industry is struggling to keep everyone happy. “Mills are trying to meet the highest level of demand - and 75 per cent of households buy white flour.” So a lot of mills are making white flour at the moment, and changing over to wholemeal for a day or too is logistically time consuming.
Tempting though it is to buy a whole sack of flour, whether pizza or plain, it’s worth thinking about how to store that much. It makes sense to share with nearby friends and neighbours, using text messaging and exercise breaks to organise socially distanced drop offs.
Some people have been even more creative. Lisa, a Somerset-based chocolate maker, noticed that she could get flour by the sack from her wholesaler along with the usual chocolate supplies. “We ordered some in and weighed it out into the chocolate packaging, tying it with different coloured ribbons - orange for brown, red for white flour.” She set up a stall and an honesty box by her door and put word out in the village, and now admits that she is spending every spare minute bagging up flour. “I’m selling it at cost, but I ask salaried people to put a bit extra in the jar so people who have lost their income can take a bag. It’s really brought the village together, got everyone baking, and become a lifeline for some of the older people.”
Soon she expanded into providing fresh yeast and her sourdough starter as well as plain and self raising flour, and word got around. “I feel like a drug dealer,” she laughed when I spoke to her. “My phone is full of people texting and people loiter at the gate waiting for it to be put out.”
Persuading people not to hoard has been an issue too. “I’ve had people coming from other villages asking to take it all but then what would people in our village do, the ones who walk across the fields to get a bag on their way to the allotment?”
Overwhelmingly though, there is much to be optimistic about, according to Lister. “The most exciting thing is everyone is baking. It’s a complete revolution. It’s one of the most fun things you can do with the family and very rewarding, so I am hoping when this all passes by, there will be a few people who keep on baking.”
The National Association of British and Irish Millers new “Where Can I Buy Flour?” Interactive map can be found here.