The image above shows a bag of flour that can be found on one of the top shelves of the 1950s shop, and of course it made me think about the current situation in lockdown. Hands up if you experienced, or still are experiencing, shelves empty of flour? It’s reminiscent of the toilet roll aisle earlier in lockdown, and it’s easy to assume that there was panic buying of flour in the same way as toilet rolls (refer to my previous blog) but this shortage occurs for different reasons. I think in part it was about demand, but it was also supply.
In our household, my husband took on the role of master baker as he made our daily bread. We had a cupboard with random bits of strong bread, rye, spelt and khorasan flours. Not much yeast, but he favours the artisanal sourdough. The ritual of making daily bread gives a routine to battle lockdown drift, providing a structure in a day and also some kind of craft. It takes management, attending to and gives huge satisfaction for a well-turned out loaf. Who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread?
When the reserves ran to near critical levels, he joined the many trying to score bread flour. It turns out that the ‘flour market’ isn’t equipped to deal with pandemics and a surge in demand for an increasing army of home-bakers. NABIM (The National Association of British and Irish Millers) explains that the supply of flour is almost ‘just in time’, with a typical supply chain operating a few days from mill to outlet. Those outlets are mostly to bakeries and wholesalers (supplying the café and restaurant chains). NABIM has a great infographic illustrating this. Only 4% of milled flour goes to households, and that doesn’t go in huge catering sized bags, but smaller bags. Here’s the rub, even when the mills responded to the increase in demand, there was a shortage of packaging materials. My husband tracked down bread flour, but it was a 16kg bag. We shared it with another household, and some six weeks on, the big bag is empty. This might have something to do with our rather ‘doughy’ middles, but that’s another side effect of lockdown!
There’s another load of demand, those of us who decided to use the time in lockdown to try something new (a theme I will return to). I had a flirtation with making pastry, and then the lockdown staple of banana bread, and finally (bravely) a Victoria sponge. Nigella Lawson attributes the increase in a national baking habit as ‘one of the ways to interrupt anxiety…and let other senses take over.’ I’m not sure it was always successful in alleviating anxiety. My banana bread was a great success, but my first Victoria Sponge turned out to be a Victoria Biscuit. Who knew that the size of the cake tin made a difference? I used pastry cutters to make three tiny ones with the best bits. What gave me unexpected pleasure was making the pastry for an apple pie. I cannot remember the last time I made pastry, but I was taught at my Nanny’s hips in her rather 1960s styled kitchen. The feeling of rubbing butter and flour transported me back there. Standing on a stool, sleeves pushed up to my elbows, glasses falling down my nose and rubbing to make a fine, silky crumb.
We didn’t have to resort to flour alternatives, neither did we run short of eggs. I think people’s experience varied around the country. The remote south-west has many advantages, and not having a huge ‘let’s try baking’ population density seems to be one of them.
Perhaps you have a different experience of flour shortages, of using flour alternatives, or even some classic baking stories to share from your lockdown. We would love to hear them.
Citizen Curator Volunteer.