Resurgence of home baking is boon for Oxfordshire flour mill

Bertie Matthews

The resurgence of home-cooking and baking during the three lockdowns has been good news for a Shipton under Wychwood flour mill.

During the last lockdown the business saw an increase of an incredible 6,000 per cent year on year via its website. While this has evened out demand remains high, with the biggest increases seen in sales of its Cotswold Stoneground Wholegrain and Cotswold Organic flour.

Over six generations, Matthews Cotswold Flour has specialised in quality products for cooks and bakers who understand the difference between one grain and another – and one type of flour versus the next. Three years ago the latest Matthews, 29 year old Bertie Matthews, took over as managing director.

With his enthusiasm powering the business into the next generation, the mill is on a mission to offer the best specialist flour in Great Britain. This means experimenting with new ideas from the past such as stoneground milling Ancient and Heritage grains, and also developing the master bakers of the future through its Cotswold Flour Baking Club. At the centre of this is a localised, sustainable food system that translates to nutritious bakes.

Matthews Flour MillMatthews currently employs a team of 30, made up of millers, bakers, packers and drivers delivering across the UK. The mill sells direct to home bakers all over the UK via its website or for click and collect.

It also sells flour to artisan and master bakers in the Cotswolds and across the UK. Such as baker of year Aiden Monks at Lovingly Artisan in Cumbria and the oldest running bakery in the UK Jacka Bakery down in Plymouth. Shoppers can also buy Matthews Flour in local Coop’s and Waitrose.

When Bertie first sat in the MD’s chair three years ago, things were not quite so good at the mill, but since then there has been a remarkable boom surrounding the whole concept of baking.

“When my family built this mill in 1912 it was part of the big change in milling across the UK. There were thousands of mills before that – today there are only about 20 milling companies. 

“After the railway came through in the late 1850s we were connected with the rest of the world. It changed everything. Suddenly we were selling to places like Dublin and London. 

Matthews Flour Mill grain“The traditional way to mill grain is with stones, but in the early 20th century the industry moved to milling with steel rollers. They use less energy and have a larger surface area so they are faster – although that can make the process hotter. So stoneground is slower and cooler – and needs more input. Roller milling is faster, but with more heat involved – which is not always good at keeping protein in grain.

“In this mill we have both – because there are benefits to both. But we have upgraded our stoneground operation because we realised it was important to have flour with the added level of nutrients.

“We are never going to compete with really large businesses – 98 per cent of flour in the UK is produced by big commercial mills – we’re not one of those. Instead, we are investing in people and experience.” 

This year Bertie and a group of local farmers launched the Cotswold Grain Partnership. “We want our grain to come from local farms. We are trying to lower the food miles, put money into local bank accounts and support local farmers. So we are trying to encourage farmers to grow alternative types of grain, like spelt and rye and other heritage grains.” 

The partnership is also trying to control throughput and supply by encouraging large farms with storage faculties to help hold onto their neighbour’s grain as well as their own grain between harvests – so it can be used when needed, rather than suffer the uncertainties of a fluctuating market.    

“If we all work together, we don’t have to be dictated by the market,” says Bertie. “We can set a fair price for all of us… That way we all earn without trying to grind each other down.  

“Hopefully we can attract really good grain because we are going to be turning it into a premium product – stoneground milling it, slower, keeping the nutrients in… Otherwise it will all go into the same bin and go to make white flour. 

“If you are spending a bit more on flour, you are doing two things – you are getting a much better quality product and that price is passed down to the farmers. By buying through an independent mill like ours, you are helping farmers which means they can try that crop of rye next year and help produce even more quality flours. So it goes around.”