It’s the taste of home which features on the menu at Little Salkeld Watermill, with all produce being homemade and organic
The smell of baking bread is one which few people can resist and today it is combined with the rich, citrus smell of oranges, as Cheryl Harrison is also making organic marmalade.
It will be used to add a twist to a well-loved British favourite – bread and butter pudding – which features on the tea room menu at Little Salkeld Watermill in Cumbria’s Eden Valley.
Meanwhile, the organic shop offers a wide range of home-produced stone-ground flours, as well as pulses and staples such as porridge oats, rice and pasta. There is also a thriving online business, with customers nationwide, as well as a twice-weekly delivery round, which visits on other organic outlets, food co-operatives and cafes in Cumbria and the surrounding counties.
Cheryl’s husband Phil, is a third generation Cheshire poultry farmer and the couple started married life keeping intensive layers, before switching to free-range birds.
Poor returns prompted a move into broiler production, but unfortunately the timing coincided with the upturn in grain prices. The couple decided they needed a fresh start and took over the mill as a going concern last summer.
Despite initially regarding the idea of a new venture as ‘semi-retirement’, ownership of the mill has proved similar to farming, says Cheryl.
“The site is open seven days a week, all-year-round and we only close on Christmas day. The other similarity is the mountains of paperwork involved; it is just the same with grain milling and organic food retailing.
“We were sad to leave our original home but the change has fulfilled two of our passions, I love food and cookery and Phil has always been fascinated by watermills.
“Several of our holidays had been spent in the Lake District and it seemed like fate when the mill came on to the market. We spent six months with the previous owners, Nick and Ana Jones, learning how to run the machinery and honing our breadmaking skills, before
going it alone.
“The couple had developed the site over 40 years and had a personal interest in the business. It was only after they accepted our offer they told us they would not have considered selling it to anyone else.”
The Jones’ were strict vegetarians and committed to organic foods, as well as being devotees of biodynamic methods of production. Although they have come from a very different background, Cheryl and Phil have taken many of these principles on board.
“We have surprised ourselves, really,” says Cheryl. “We have not gone so far as to turn vegetarian, but we eat a lot less meat nowadays and our diet is much higher in pulses and grains than it used to be.
“I would describe our approach when we arrived as fairly cynical, but we have discovered organic food actually does taste better.
“The problem lies in sourcing organic produce – we would like to buy more of our ingredients locally for ethical reasons and to cut costs, but it is just not available.
“We had a good supplier of local organic cheese, but the company has discontinued the line, due to lack of demand. And although we are virtually next door to an organic dairy farm, we cannot buy their milk, because they do not have a processing licence.
“We have no choice but to buy some imported foods, including sunflower seeds, which come from China and lentils which are grown in Canada. Luckily, we have found a good source for English peas and we have a local supplier for the fruit and vegetables we do not grow on-site.”
The watermill is fed by a nearby stream
The only input costs for growing grain are the machinery, diesel, seed and labour
Back in the mill the grinding stones have just been re-dressed, a process which has to be carried out every 18-24 months.
The cogs on the main gearing also need to be replaced regularly and the best wood for this purpose is either hornbeam or apple.
That is why apple tree orchards are frequently found close to mill sites, explains Cheryl. It is clear she too has been captivated by the history of the mill and the much more traditional way of life.
The large wheel drives the mixer and the mill stone, along with the bag hoist, for lifting grain up to the top floor storage area. The smaller wheel drives the winnower for the grain which needs cleaning and powers the bolting machine, which sieves the flour.
The driveshaft for the main waterwheel comes through the wall, where it turns the pit wheel. This, in turn, drives the bevel-geared crown wheel, which is connected to the horizontal spur wheel. Its wooden-tooth gearing is designed to break off under stress and prevent damage to the more expensive components.
The next stage is for the spur wheel to drive the stone nut, which turns a shaft running through the bed stone, to the runner stone on the upper level. Once milled, the flour is sent down a chute, into the waiting sacks below.
The Harrisons freely admit organic and biodynamic produce is significantly more expensive than its conventional counterpart, but this factor has little impact on most of their customers.
“Some of our individual customers end up paying more for the price of the courier than for the cost of the flour itself, but that does not seem to worry them. We cater for a small niche market, for which price is of secondary importance to quality and provenance.
“We are open to tourists and some visitors find the tea room expensive; compared with conventional places. There is no point in pretending organic food is cheaper because it is not. Input costs may be lower but so are yields and producers need a premium to make a profit.
“The average ex-farm price for milling wheat is £150-£170/tonne, for example, but we pay double that amount for the organic, biodynamic grains which we use in the mill.”
Although the couple are confident they have picked up a lot of new information since moving to Cumbria, Alison says there is still plenty to learn.
“It is very satisfying to feel our customers appreciate the food we produce and understand why our prices cannot compete with the large retailers.
“Poultry farming was tough and this project is more challenging than we had imagined, but we feel we have made the right decision and we are certain we will be around for many years to come.”
The Brockmans were the first family to practice biodynamic farming in the UK, having introduced its principles back in the 1950s.
They have been supplying Little Salkeld Mill with biodynamic wheat and barley for more than 30 years, usually sending one bulk load up to the mill on an annual basis.
The biodynamic calendar is used for guidance on when to plant and harvest crops, but dates may be adjusted, depending on the weather, says Leo Brockman.
“There is no obligation to stick rigidly to the dates, but the calendar is followed as closely as possible,” he says.
“The best time to plant cereals is when the moon is in a fire sign, while we believe we will achieve better harvest results when the moon is in a water sign. We also acknowledge a link between harvest date and the keeping quality of grain in storage.
“Biodynamic farming conforms with organic standards, but biodynamic production places greater emphasis on a holistic approach.
“We try to avoid buying inputs wherever possible, and instead look to the farm to supply us with everything we need to grow crops and breed and finish livestock.”
In a good year, milling wheat on the farm will average about five tonnes/hectare (2t/acre); much lower than the average conventional harvest result. However, the sacrifice can be financially justified, believes Leo.
“Our input costs are much lower and we get a premium for biodynamic grain, which amounts to around double the average market price.
It can be tricky to achieve the protein levels required for milling wheat, but quality can be improved, by sowing milling varieties directly after a four-year grass ley.
“Modern milling techniques process the grain much faster, compared with the stone-grinding methods used at Little Salkeld Watermill.
Grain goes through the system much more slowly, which results in fewer protein losses.”
Their only input costs for growing grain are machinery, diesel, seed and labour.
“Biodynamic production is aimed at a niche market and the premiums on offer make it worthwhile. I doubt whether we could make a living on this farm, using conventional growing practices,” says Leo.