Pandemic-baking Britain has ‘obscene’ need for flour
A week before Britain came to a standstill in mid-March, the Wessex Mill found itself fielding nearly 600 calls a day requesting one of the country’s hottest commodities: flour.
The mill in Oxfordshire has produced nearly 13,000 small bags of flour each day during the coronavirus pandemic, a fourfold increase. Demand led Emily Munsey, a flour miller who runs the business with her father, to hire more staff and add afternoon and night shifts to keep the mill running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the first time in its 125-year history.
“It’s been very challenging as a company. The amount of work we’ve all had to do has increased a huge amount,” said Munsey, who has since scaled back to five days a week, although still around the clock, to give employees a weekend break. “Demand remains consistently obscene.”
Commercial mills produce nearly 4 million tons of flour each year in Britain, according to the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers. With much of the country stuck at home, baking has surged, and retail-size flour bags have become scarce on grocery shelves.
The coronavirus outbreak has flooded social media with #coronavirusbaking and #quarantinecookies. Yeast is in short supply, and butter sales have soared. In April, Google searches for cake, bread and flour skyrocketed.
The desire for flour has led some baking Britons to buy commercial-size sacks, some to try new recipes and others to monetize the shortage, with bags of flour going on eBay for more than $85.
For many, baking serves as a respite from chaos. “One of the ways to interrupt anxiety is to let other senses take over,” British culinary author and television star Nigella Lawson told The Guardian.
Artisanal mills are feeling the surge in demand, according to the Traditional Cornmillers Guild. A traditional water-powered mill in northeast England was inundated with a 500% increase in demand and had to close its online shop. Another, on a 1,000-yearold milling site in the country’s south, ceased production in 1970 but has restarted to supply flour to local shops.
The problem in Britain isn’t merely a flour shortage but the industry’s inability to package small bags quickly enough. Large, commercial milling sites produce 99% of the flour in Britain. They typically provide 35-pound bags of flour to bakeries, so shifting to retail bags, which make up only a sliver of the market, has proved difficult.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Alex Waugh, the director general of the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers. “For more than a month now, the output of flour for home baking has been double the normal level,” increasing to 4 million bags a week.
Small flour bags have been so scarce that supermarket chains Morrisons and Sainsbury’s have taken matters into their own hands: selling 35-pound bags of flour or portioning it into small paper bags.
Bags of flour are loaded onto a pallet May 15 at Wessex Mill in Wantage, England.