Australian Flour – from Commodity to Single Origin
A quiet revolution is building as some consumers and bakers are beginning to appreciate bread as a food in its own right rather than a cheap “bulking” or “filling” food. Bread can have a variety of flavours and complexities not unlike other fermented foods such as cheese. A good analogy is the variety and complexity of wines and single malt whiskeys.
Currently most flour originates from many varieties of wheat and growing areas. These grains are blended by the miller to create a uniform product. This limits the possibility of celebrating specific flavour complexities and the uniqueness of individual varieties.
Single Origin is all about knowing where the wheat is grown and how the farmer treats his soil, crop and community. It is about understanding the grain varieties which influence the flavour, aroma and texture of the bread. Combined with the uniqueness of the sourdough endemic biological polyculture, flour is transformed into a bread with real nutritional character and unique flavour.
Flour as a Commodity
From a global perspective Australia is a small producer of wheat with 2016’s 25 million tonnes representing just 3-4% of the world’s wheat production. Australia, however, is an important player in the global wheat trade, accounting for 10–15% of global wheat exports. Australia was the third highest exporter based on dollar value worth of wheat during 2015.
Below are the 15 countries that exported the highest dollar value worth of wheat during 2015:
- Canada: US$6.2 billion (16.2% of total wheat exports)
- United States: $5.6 billion (14.5%)
- Australia: $4.4 billion (11.4%)
- France: $4.3 billion (11.1%)
- Russia: $3.9 billion (10.1%)
- Germany: $2.4 billion (6.3%)
- Ukraine: $1.4 billion (3.8%)
- Kazakhstan: $1.2 billion (3.2%)
- Argentina: $1 billion (2.7%)
- Poland: $865.3 million (2.3%)
- Romania: $768.7 million (2%)
- Bulgaria: $652.9 million (1.7%)
- Czech Republic: $505.7 million (1.3%)
- Lithuania: $503.1 million (1.3%)
- United Kingdom: $403 million (1.1%)
Indonesia is Australia’s largest export market worth an average of $1.3bn per annum. During the past five years, the Indonesian market alone has accounted for 20% of Australian wheat exports followed by Vietnam at 9%.
Australian wheat is sought after for its high flour extraction rates, bright white flour colour, low moisture content, white seed coat, fit-for-purpose protein levels and starch qualities.
Domestically Australian wheat meets almost 100% of Australia’s wheat needs. Internationally, Australian wheat is sought for Asian noodles, pasta, bread and other baked goods. High extraction rates provide value for money and low moisture levels ensure Australian wheat can be stored for long periods without spoiling.
Cropping Belt and the Golden Triangle
Grain crops are grown in the ‘cropping belt’ of Australia, which comprises some 45 million hectares. This ‘belt’ starts in central Queensland and wraps itself inland down through NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and along the bottom edge of SA through the south-west to central WA.
Australia’s best high protein wheat comes from the “golden triangle” bounded by the towns of Narrabri, Moree and Inverell in Northern NSW and also from the Darling Downs in southern QLD. These areas have highly fertile volcanic soils, a temperate climate and abundant water supply both from inland rivers and the Great Artesian Basin.
The Silo and the Miller
The grain grower generally transports the wheat to a silo or sometimes directly to the miller. The miller’s job is to blend the grains to produce a sound stable product.
The grains for baking bread are classified as Australian Prime Hard. This is a high protein milling wheat, comprising selected white, hard-grained wheat varieties. It is ideally suited for high-volume European breads, yellow alkaline noodles, fresh ramen noodles, dry noodles and wonton skins. It can also be blended with lower-protein wheats to enhance flour quality.
Weakness of Treating Wheat as a Commodity
One of the weaknesses of treating wheat as a commodity is that there is no link between what the customer wants and what is bred and produced.
A recent CSIRO survey found as many as one in 10 Australian adults (approximately 1.8 million people) are avoiding or limiting their wheat consumption CSIRO (2015). Few among this group (5·7%) claimed a formally diagnosed intolerance or allergy requiring avoidance of wheat-based foods.
Introducing Single Origin
Recently we interviewed John Campbell of Provenance Flour who is leading the way with Single Origin Flour. “We start with the farmer whose prime objective is care for the soil and care for their local community. With that you have a healthy soil, a healthy plant and a healthy seed. We then match up the philosophy of the farmer with the philosophy of the baker.”
“We then put the baker in control of the variety of wheat they use, as each variety will perform differently in the bakery.”
John brought us two bags of flour, one from the variety of grain called ‘Spitfire’ grown by Richard Tweedy at North Star and another variety called ‘Lancer’ grown by Simon Doolin also at North Star. “Those farms are about 10 kilometres apart so similar soil types and climate. Those wheats in the normal system would be blended together, meaning their unique characteristics would be lost, but within the bakery they perform significantly differently.”
“Spitfire is a very strong flour and rewards the time that you give it, but it really depends on what works for each particular baker.”
The farmers who supply Provenance Flour use a combination of techniques such as minimising soil disruption, minimising traffic on the soil, planting green manure crops, resting the soil, crop rotation and adding compost on a broad scale. Each spadeful of soil from their fields is alive with earthworms and the healthy crops are more able to withstand invasion from pests, minimising pesticide use.
The focus of wheat produced for the commodity market has been high yield and disease resistance. However Provenance Flour’s farmers aim to create a unique flour which is the culmination of the soil, climate and grain variety from a specific farmer in a specific geographical region. This unique offering is being supplied to artisan bakers in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane such as Brasserie Bread and Brickfields Bakery. As the two parties communicate their shared philosophies, flavour and health becomes paramount in the equation.
We set about devising a simple bake test of the Provenance Flour samples and in our next post we detail our bake test and describe what we found.