Mills have operated in Cann, near Shaftesbury, for over 900 years. Alfred learned how Stoate and Sons’ traditional approach has made their award-winning flour the toast of artisan bakers at home and abroad.
I wondered how many people driving along the A350 are unaware of Cann Mill as they cross the bridge over the Sturkle and climb the hill towards Shaftesbury. The swans gliding over the calm millpond waters were a picture of serenity, but metres away, the mood in the mill was very different – a noisy, dusty hive of activity.
Michael Stoate was in the middle of another long day, like so many of his relatives before. “I am the fifth generation and my son Ollie joined us three years ago. Maybe we will go into the sixth generation,” said Michael.
Milling is the Stoate family’s calling. Two Stoate brothers leased Watchet Mill in Somerset in 1832. As the company grew, a move to Bristol followed. In 1947, Michael’s dad moved to Cann. Norman Stoate took on a country mill that had been supplying animal feed to local farmers. The business continued to turn farmers’ grain into meal until the early 1970s.
“Apparently my grandfather wanted to be a farmer, but he was told he had to be a miller,” said Michael. “It is a hard job. People come and see it and think it must be so romantic, but it is physically hard work and long hours. It’s a job you have to love to do.”
Michael’s pride and passion for his family business comes across in his level of commitment. “I tend to start the mill at seven or eight in the morning and then I try and run it until a similar time in the evening. If deliveries are going out, they tend to go out through the night,” said Michael.
This part of the Shaftesbury area has been home to mills for centuries. “It’s recorded in the Domesday records that there was a mill here at Cann,” said Michael. There used to be five working mills within a mile on this stretch of the Sturkle, with water running 24-7. It would have been really important to the community,” he said. “There used to be Spraggs Mill on the other side of the bridge. There was Cann Mill, Gears Mill and the French Mill.”
I was surprised that there was so much milling in this area because the river does not appear to be that powerful. “The spring is three-quarters of a mile away from here,” Michael explained. “It bubbles out of the chalk in Melbury, but it is constant, even in a really hot summer. Although the stream is not quite enough to turn the waterwheel, we build it up at night. It’s a bit like building up a battery really. We have a fall of around eleven feet, so we are harnessing the energy from the water falling. Is not necessarily the volume of water, it’s the constant flow in the fall.”
Here in the North Dorset countryside, Michael is more connected to his environment than a commercial, city-based mill. He needs to check the weather in case downpours overload the millpond. “If we are liable to get a flash flood, we prepare the sluices before it happens.”
And there are other aspects of the forecast he needs to consider. “Humidity does alter the way the grain mills. It changes the way it flows down the spouts and how the millstones react,” said Michael. “When the weather changes, there is a bit of tinkering around with adjustments on the machinery. We are watching the weather with the millpond, too. If we are liable to get a flash flood, we prepare the sluices before it happens.”
Milling in this part of Cann has continued through the decades, with just a brief change of use during the Second World War. “The government took over the building and it was used for making ammunition and bits for the war effort.”
Michael is proud of tradition, but the business has moved with the times. His dad converted the 18th century, formerly thatched, building in the mill yard into a grain store in the 1940s. “I modernised it again in 2012. It was originally for sacks of grain. We can now take the 29-ton crane lorries and it unloads at forty tons an hour, so we are not waiting around too long.”
Michael showed me the ten bins, each containing fourteen tons, which hold the grain. “There is a grain cleaner, blending bins and it goes into a blower,” he said, before pointing out a pipe which runs across the yard, linking this older building with the taller mill building. “We can blow the grain into the mill ready for milling.”
Michael says they try to use local sources. “Most of it we get within a 30-mile radius of the mill. We use as much local as possible,” he said.
We crossed the yard and entered the mill by climbing up wooden steps. Michael added these. His dad used to leap up at least three feet to enter the building. Every surface was coated in the fine white flour dust that also sprinkled Michael’s hair, face and clothing. And the mill was surprisingly loud. “It’s noisy on every floor. It’s only on the top floor when things quiet down,” said Michael.
“The waterwheel was installed in1861. It had a wooden shaft in it that my father replaced for a metal once in the early 1950s. I have replaced four buckets on it. There was a big fire here in 1954 and I think some of the rubble from the old building fell on it and broke them. It is very reliable,” said Michael.
Even the fire didn’t stop operations. Michael’s father set up a temporary, diesel-powered mill opposite, but the blaze was devastating, nonetheless. “My father wasn’t on-site at the time. He was delivering some animal feed to a local farmer and just saw the plume of smoke coming out of the valley. It must’ve been a very frightening experience,” said Michael.
We paused to look at the millstones, which provide a quarter of the mill’s power, in action. “They are French burr millstones. It is stone that was quarried in the Paris basin and shipped up the River Thames and manufactured into millstones. It was probably done in the early 1900s. The basic method of the milling is the same as it would have been then.”
Michael says millers started using the French stones in the 1790s. “They have always been renowned as the best for making a quality flower,” said Michael. “This mill would originally have had Derbyshire Peak stone, that is used mainly for animal feed. It’s fine for barley, wheat and oats but for hard milling wheat that we use for bread making you need a high-quality stone.”
Michael said it was sad that the French stone was considered the best quality. “The truth often hurts,” he laughed. “It’s a primitive limestone, I’m told. It’s very, very hard.”
It was fascinating watching the equipment at work, with pulleys and revolving discs rising up and down, twisting and turning. The orchestration of movement was mesmerizing and slightly ‘Heath Robinson’. Michael, who trained as an engineer, looked on with pride. “I’ve modernised the apparatus with plastic covers on the millstones, rather than the traditional wooden ones. These are easier to keep clean and service, and less likely to get an infestation.”
“It’s a bit of a mixture of old and new technology,” he continued. “I like the challenge of making things work. If there is something that is going to make life easier but keeps the method of production traditional, and the quality is there, then I’m all for making the changes.”
One interesting addition to the operation, a sustainable energy source to supplement the watermill, became a local landmark. A white-sailed, Portuguese-style windmill stood on top of the mill until 2008.
“It was quite a sight. It a bit of a strange place to build a windmill in the valley, so it relies heavily on the easterly and westerly winds that were channelling through,” said Michael. “We had a small set of millstones that it would turn on a good day, but it wasn’t commercially viable and got to the stage where it needed a lot of TLC and money and we needed the extra space. We had to make the roof watertight too, which was more crucial for a flour mill.”
We walked up the stairs to the second floor to see the sieve. It had the appearance of a long rectangular wooden chest – almost a coffin – with a side panel displaying a muslin type cloth sporting a stripy, deckchair-like pattern. “This is the main flour sieve. All of the flour that is ground downstairs comes up here and goes through the sieve. This separates some of the bran. For making brown flour, we take off 20% of the bran and most of that goes to animal feed. The white flour goes through a second sieve to remove more of the bran,” said Michael
Michael explain why his traditional approach produces better flour. “With stone grinding, the grain is ground in one pass. Everything is retained in it. With roller milling, which is done on steel rollers for mass-produced flour, it goes through several different rolls in the process. One of the things that they take out is the wheat germ, which is 2% of the actual grain. It is where a lot of the goodness and energy for the germination of the new plant is. It is very high in oil, so they take it out to extend the shelf life of the finished flour,” said Michael.
“With stoneground flour, this gets ground into the meal. Even our white flour has the wheat germ it. The downside is that the oil can go rancid, so it shortens the shelf life of the flour, maybe down to seven months.” The roller ground flour can be good for 18 months.
Stoate’s flour was considered excellent in the opinion of the Great Taste Gold Award judges. In 2011, both the organic Maltstar and stone-ground white flour gained top marks. And Michael’s customers have also been commended. “The World Bread Awards are now in the eighth year and the last two years they have been won by bakers using our flour. So it can’t be a coincidence,” smiled Michael.
Michael says these awards have been good for his business. “It’s all good publicity and the word gets around, said Michael, who says it gets the company’s name out in front of the small artisan independent bakers and the keen home bakers he supplies.
Michael has noticed a change in the market over the last few years. For a time, bread and carbs were out of favour but now television programmes are encouraging home baking. “The last fifteen years has been a gradual increase in interest in real bread,” said Micael.
The bags and sacks of flour that Michael has lined up downstairs generally go to small independent bakers. They get dispatched to Cornwall and Sussex, and London is an important market.
Flour from Shaftesbury has been sent abroad previously, too. “We used to have a customer in Kuala Lumpur, of all places. It went in a container but there were a lot of problems with heat affecting the flour and the storage of it.”
Unlike bread, there’s no immediate rush to dispatch newly milled flour to bakers. “The vast majority of bakers like it aged. They call fresh flour ‘green flour’ and they don’t like that. If it is left to mellow, the gluten oxidises slightly and becomes more workable.”
Local bakers won’t necessarily want to buy Michael’s flour in the volume that commercial users require. “We are more than happy to fill anybody’s boot with 25kg sacks, but if people want more domestic sizes, we do a 1.5kg bag. The mill is open between Monday and Friday to sell flour to home bakers as well as the commercial industry,” said Michael.
Michael says he’s keen to explore new ways to help bakers improve the taste of their bread. “We’re looking at older grains that have gone out of fashion. We are looking at grains for flavour and baking properties, rather than the commercial aspects that have driven the market over the last twenty or thirty years.”
With a sixth generation of the Stoate family potentially lined-up to take on this family business, the future looks good for this special and much-loved Shaftesbury area enterprise. “We’re always tweaking with the mill. Its evolution means things are constantly happening here, so we can improve and move on,” said Michael.
Each year, the mill is open to the public for one day in May. I’d recommend taking a tour. Look out for the open day notices.