Pan­demic-bak­ing Bri­tain has ‘ob­scene’ need for flour

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - BUSINESS - By Geneva Ab­dul

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.

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