One of the joys of being part of an ancient craft is that you get the chance to experience how the craft has evolved over the generations, equally, how the capability of the miller has enabled the baker to create new types of breads, pastries, pies and cakes. One area this is so visible is the way in which traditional millers have “dressed” or sieved wholemeal flour to create the more ‘desirable’ white flour.
The early flour sieves were called “bolters” and as the picture below drawn by John Brandrick shows, consisted of a wooden box in which an angled cylinder (typically six sided) was situated over which was stretched a woolen “bolting cloth”. Into the cylinder was fed the wholemeal flour (or meal) and as the cylinder rotated (or sometimes the cylinder was stationary but a set of beaters inside rotated), the meal was thrown about causing the finer particles to work through the coarse weave of the cloth and separate away from the bran and semolina (semi milled flour); thus creating white flour and offal (bran and semolina).
The white flour which falls into the bottom of the “box” and the offal was collected by means of flour spouts (chutes), one from the middle of the base of the “box” and the other from the end of the angled cylinder in a separate spout.
Once silk was available, millers were able to replace the wool bolting cloth with silk, enabling a better quality extraction (a whiter flour) and later in the 1880s, as fine wire mesh became available, cloth or silk was replaced with wire leading to further significant improvements in the quality of accuracy of the flour extraction (white flour, brown flour, semolina). In the 20th Century, nylon enabled a further evolution of flour dressing with millers now able to use wire or nylon screens.
At Fosters Mill, we have an example of a flour bolter with a wire mesh and internal beaters, but we also have, rescued from a watermill in Norfolk (which had been dismantled), a more modern “reel” machine where a nylon mesh covered cylinder turns to shake the white flour from the wholemeal. For the last 10 years, this has done the hard work, producing the white flour you have become so accustomed to. Below, you can see it in action:
Our Reel Machine produced a lovely white flour, but was rather slow, taking over 1 hour to produce 25kgs of white flour. With increasing demand for white flour, we needed to find an alternative. Sourcing ancillary equipment for traditional mills is a complex business, a) because there are very few machines left and b) because to preserve the integrity of our remaining milling heritage, most mill owners subscribe to the SPAB Mills Section Philosophy of Repair which states that ancillary machinery should remain in the mill where it last worked, it is part of the history of the mill and should remain so.
Luckily for us, one of our neighbour mill owners had rescued an Arnfield Centrifugal Flour Dresser from a mill which was being pulled down a number of years ago and it had lain in a derelict state in his shed for many years. With the help of millwright Malcolm Cooper, we have set about restoring the dresser and it is now working in place of the Reel dresser (above):
After being stripped down, the frame, moving parts and cylinder were all rubbed down and repainted, ensuring the exterior which retained its original paint was carefully preserved:
The timberwork of the case was beyond viable repair being badly worm eaten and soft with rot. This was therefore carefully replaced with exact copies of the original. The machine was then re-assembled before being stripped down for fitting in the mill. This was a major exercise, involving removing sections of the Stone Floor flooring to a) get the Reel Dresser down (it does not come apart!), then as can be seen from the picture below, to lift the Arnfield dresser onto the Stone Floor (1st Floor) in sections. Here you see Malcolm winching the cylinder of the Arnfield machine in which the flour is dressed. Note the teeth on the edge closest to the camera – this is where a chain now runs to turn the cylinder – driven from the auger / shaft underneath:
The machine was then assembled and tested:
Finally, after a careful clean down of all parts to ensure the dresser is as hygienic as possible, a new wire mesh screen was fitted, a careful operation to ensure it is tight and sealed so that no wholemeal flour can leak into the white flour chamber:
Then, finally, it was time to test the new machine with flour for the first time and what a result! We now have a machine which is able to dress over 1kg of flour per minute, enabling us to dress 25kgs in around 20 – 25 minutes. We get a more uniform extraction (% of white flour from the wholemeal) and our customer are telling us that the flavour of our white flour is even better! And, we’ve got the satisfaction of returning a fantastic piece of engineering back to daily work. Thanks to all who have helped along the way. Whilst we are currently driving the machine with an electric motor, we hope to take an alternative wind-power source from our existing wire machine drive so that the dresser can also work off the wind.