The wind in their sails
Mervin Austin leads a double life. Sometimes you'll find him in his bakery, kneading dough or sliding a long-handled 'peel' loaded with loaves into his custom-built, wood-fired oven. But when the wind gets up he scurries across the yard to free the sails, lower the stones and open the chute of his 130-year-old brick tower windmill. When you grind your own flour the traditional way you can't ignore the weather.
The mill in question is Mount Pleasant Windmill near Kirton-in-Lindsey, Lincolnshire. "I think we're unique," says his wife Marie-Christine. "I know plenty of millers but I don't know anyone else who controls the whole process from start to finish. You can't make excellent bread without excellent ingredients. Because he's a baker, Mervin knows exactly what he's looking for when he sources the grain and he mills it to perfection."
This is no idle boast. Mount Pleasant Windmill won the grocery section in the Waitrose Small Producers' Awards 2003 and was chosen by Rick Stein as one of his "Super Food Heroes". Yet Mervin knew nothing about milling when he arrived six years ago from London, where he was joint owner of a large commercial bakery. "I was tired of sitting behind a desk and Marie-Christine, who had left teaching to bring up our two boys, was ready to go back to work," he says. "We were actually looking for an Essex barn to set up a business baking artisan bread with organic stone-ground flour. But it was the beginning of the property boom when people were buying up barns for conversion and we couldn't afford it."
When he discovered by chance that the Lincolnshire mill was up for sale, it seemed too good to be true but Marie-Christine had reservations. "As we drove here, I kept saying, 'You can look but we're not buying!' Then I saw it. It was a beautiful day and the sails were turning. It looked terrific." she says.
It's certainly an imposing sight, standing four storeys high topped by the characteristic Lincolnshire onion-shaped ogee cap. The date 1875 and the initials E. L. above the lintel of the loading back door are a reminder of the first miller, Edric Lansdall, who built it to replace an earlier post mill, destroyed in a gale. The four sails were removed in 1936 but the mill continued to operate powered by an oil engine until 1973. Today the former grain store is the Austins' home and the barn which housed the engine is their onsite tea room and shop.
Restored in 1991, the mill was in full working order when the purchase went through in 2000. Or so they thought. The first sign of trouble was the discovery that the dresser, which sieves the flour, was falling apart. Mervin spent weeks trying to repair it, only to watch it disintegrate again the next time the wind blew. Having spent thousands of pounds on a replacement, the couple set about rearranging the mill layout, for the ground floor had been taken out of action, bringing the dresser too close to the stones. As unforeseen expenses continued to mount, so too did the time spent on renovation instead of getting on with what they had come here to do — milling and baking.
Somehow they made it, and today they sell 11 different organic flours, which Mervin uses to make thirty varieties of bread as well cakes and scones for the tea room. Nothing is added and thanks to the gentle pressure exerted by French burr stones and Derbyshire peak stones nothing is taken out. "Roller milling damages the starch and strips the wheatgerm of vitamins and nutrients," he explains. He has also revived the old-fashioned baking technique of long fermentation. "That's the secret for taste," says his wife. "Like a good stew, the flavour develops over time."
From the outset they took a selection of loaves to farmers' markets, a winning strategy, for having tasted them once, people are hungry for more. Some travel miles to visit the shop, others call up to place an order, which is dispatched by courier within hours of leaving the oven. Meanwhile farm shops and delicatessens have begun to stock their flour and are now asking for bread. The couple are delighted, not least because it reflects a growing interest in real food, something close to their hearts. For the moment, Marie-Christine is getting to grips with food packaging legislation - an inevitable consequence of expansion - but when she finally emerges from her pile of labels and bags, she hopes to introduce their products to an organic vegetable box scheme. She has also been approached by nutritionists, searching in vain for quality, organic, gluten-free bread. The business may be founded on traditional values but it's not standing still.
For more information see www.mountpleasantwindmill.co.uk or telephone 01652 640177.