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Doves Farm: flour the way it’s meant to be

Doves Farm: flour the way it’s meant to be

by Great British Chefs 15 November 2018

As a pioneer of the organic movement in the 1970s, Doves Farm doesn’t just produce top-quality flour – it’s responsible for reintroducing ancient grains to the UK that had all but died out. We talk to owner Clare Marriage to find out where this love of flour (both wheat-based and gluten-free) comes from.

There’s so much to get excited about in the world of British food. Welsh Wagyu beef, artisan cheese, pickles and preserves – all of these ingredients have fantastic stories behind them and have become important parts of our nation’s culinary tapestry. But these all-singing, all-dancing products can sometimes overshadow the things that have been integral to how we've cooked since ancient times. And while many of us might find it hard to get enthused about essential ingredients like flour, that certainly isn’t the case for Clare Marriage, who founded Doves Farm in the 1970s with her husband Michael.

Back then, flour was seen as little more than a commodity – a mass-produced means to an end to create cakes and breads at home. However, Clare grew up with a fantastic cook for a mother, which in turn spurred her on to learn as much about food as she could. ‘My mother cooked with ingredients such as olive oil and avocados, which back then were quite unheard of – you had to go to the chemists to get the olive oil!’ she explains. ‘By the time I was a teenager I decided to become vegetarian, and from then on I became very interested in the nutrition of food and how it was produced. It quickly became apparent that many ingredients were grown on farms adopting modern techniques, using fertilisers and chemical sprays. But it wasn’t until I read a book by Rachel Carson called Silent Spring which pointed a finger at pesticides and what they might be doing to our environment that I became convinced that growing and eating organic food would be a really good thing to do.’

Clare eventually met and married Michael, who had inherited his parents’ mixed arable farm in the North Wessex Downs. While most would have continued to run it as a typical business, the two of them decided to do something seen as quite radical in 1976 – go organic. Starting off with a single field, they sowed their wheat and grew it without any artificial fertilisers, becoming one of the first organic wheat farms in the process amongst just a handful of others.

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Doves Farm was among the first of just a few producers in the UK to grow organic wheat in the 1970s
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Today, the family-owned business is run by Clare and Michael Marriage, along with their sons Jethro and Rupert

‘It was a voyage of experimentation for us,’ says Clare, ‘as it took six to nine months before the crop was ready to harvest. That’s why we didn’t convert the whole farm and just stuck to one field in the beginning. We were reasonably happy with our first harvest, although the yield would have been larger if we’d used artificial fertiliser.’

Before their first harvest, however, Clare and Michael had to work out how to mill their grain to turn it into flour. ‘The mills and grain merchants didn’t want to keep our organic wheat separate from the rest, so it became apparent that we’d have to do it ourselves,’ says Clare. ‘That meant buying a mill, creating the flour on the farm and then going round shops to sell it.’

Word spread about Clare and Michael’s new mill, and soon the small number of other organic wheat farmers in the country started to send their grain to them to be made into organic flour (rather than it being lumped in with standard flour to be sold as a commodity). That, combined with Clare and Michael eventually making their entire 350-acre farm a fully organic operation, turned Doves Farm into the largest organic flour producer in the UK. ‘At harvest time farmers from all over the UK send us half a kilo of crop they’ve been growing from a few different fields to test and analyse. Depending on the character of the wheat, it can be good for various things. You want a strong, high-gluten flour for bread-making, whereas for pastry and cakes you want a weaker, softer flour so the texture will be more tender. We still continue to grow our own grain on our farm, but we supplement that with other organic grains that we buy in.’

Ancient flours

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Around twenty years after Clare and Michael decided to start growing organic wheat, they began looking at other grains that could be used to create flour. They had already started producing rye, but it was when they got their hands on some spelt – an ingredient unheard of in the UK – that they began to experiment once again.

‘We thought it might be rather fun to grow some, and when we produced our first crop it was met with some amusement by the bakers we supplied at the time,’ says Clare. ‘The common form of wheat is known as a 'naked grain’, so when the combine harvester goes into the field it cuts the grain and ‘threshes’ it, chucking the straw out of the back. The leftover grain can then be off-loaded onto a tractor and taken away.

‘With spelt, you can’t do that,’ she continues. ‘After combining you have to mechanically remove the outer husk of each grain to release the seeds within. That’s the most significant difference between ancient grains like spelt and the modern wheat of today, and why it wasn’t surprising that spelt wasn’t available in the UK – it’s much more difficult to harvest and turn into flour.’

Despite that initial amusement, demand for Doves Farm’s spelt flour grew and led Clare to start researching other ancient, forgotten varieties of wheat. In 2009 the business produced its first einkorn flour – which is thought to be the mother of all wheat and was what people in the Bronze Age baked with – along with emmer, which is similar but has a higher yield. These three varieties of wheat offer home bakers a nuttier, earthier, ‘wheatier’ flavour in their breads (particularly sourdough) and create fantastic cakes and pastries that are a world away from the mass-produced loaves and bakes in the supermarkets.

Free-from flours

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The final part of Doves Farm’s story dates right back to when Clare and Michael first took over the farm, but has only come to the fore recently. The popularity of gluten-free diets has rocketed in the past few years, but Doves Farm has been producing it since the 1970s. ‘Within days of installing our first mill we started to make maize flour, because my mother had been told she had to eat a gluten-free diet,’ says Clare. ‘You certainly couldn’t find gluten-free flour in the supermarkets in those days, so the health food shops we were selling our organic flour to were thrilled that they could stock gluten-free maize flour alongside it.’

While single-variety gluten-free flours were easy enough to produce, making gluten-free alternatives that acted in the same way as plain flour required experimentation with various blends of ingredients. ‘For me, the holy grail was to be able to make something out of gluten-free flour that tasted the same as if it was made with regular flour,’ explains Clare. ‘My particular trick was to bake something for tea and serve it to my children – they really don’t hold back. If they said ‘yuck, mum, not gluten-free again!’ then I knew it wasn’t right, but if they ate it without a word then I knew I was onto a winner.’

Once the gluten-free plain flour recipe was finalised, it took Clare another ten years before she managed to perfect a gluten-free bread flour recipe. Fast-forward to today and Doves Farm has a triplet of strings to its bow – fantastic flour free from additives or pesticides; flours made from ancient grains that offer something new and different to bakers; and a range of gluten-free flours that act and work just like their wheat-filled counterparts. Clare and Michael have since moved into the world of cereals, bars, pastas and biscuits, using their own flours to create them and working with dedicated artisan producers in both the UK and beyond. At first glance, we might think of flour as a generic, ‘always-there’ ingredient, but one thing’s for sure – a bag of it produced by Doves Farm is anything but run-of-the-mill.

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Doves Farm: flour the way it’s meant to be

 
 

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