Ian Burt, Somerset organic flour producer talks to Michel Hooper-Immins from his mill in Wells

PUBLISHED: 20:28 17 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013

Ian Burt pouring grain into the hopper. Photo by Mary Thomas

Ian Burt pouring grain into the hopper. Photo by Mary Thomas

Most flour is now made in modern factories by industrial processes. However, at Burcott Mill, two miles from Wells, the traditional process, powered by waterwheel, survives. Burcott is one of only two fully working watermills in the county and the...

Ian Burt, Somerset organic flour producer talks to Michel Hooper-Immins from his mill in Wells

Bread has been the staff of life since very early days. Milling wheat grain to make flour is a skill practised for several thousand years, initially by hand-stones known as querns and later by giant mill-stones - often powered by rivers.

Traditional flour-making is a process little changed since Roman times, although the Industrial Revolution harnessed water energy, like the River Axe which flows by Burcott Mill , sending water through a channel, called a leat, over the waterwheel, to power the millstones.

The modern miller is Ian Burt, sometime journalist and corporate highflier, now enjoying his third career. He started off as a newspaper reporter in Hampshire, where he met Lesley, to whom he has now been married for 28 years. They have two daughters, Kathryn and Caroline, both at school in Wells.

Newspaper reporting led to public relations and London, where he joined global drinks giant Allied-Domecq , travelling the world for 15 years before a 'mid-life crisis' loomed!

The Burt family were settled in Somerset and had no desire to move. "We'd always been sociable, so looked around for a guest house," Ian tells me. The Grade II Listed miller's house, built in 1750 on a site where there had been milling for more than 1,000 years, seemed ideal, so they bought it in October 2000. The 1864 mill came with the house! "I felt real trepidation on first setting foot in the mill," says Ian. The previous owner had been an engineer, lovingly restoring the machinery in 1990. Thankfully, machinery was his passion; in time, Ian's would become the end product... organic flour. He was given a two-hour crash course by the previous owner and then he was on his own.

Being the village miller was an honourable occupation for centuries, but today there are more Members of Parliament in the UK than there are millers

Ian buys his grain from Suffolk, with the stalks and husks removed. Why not Somerset wheat? Apparently the local grain is too wet, Somerset's soil and climate are just not right. "I'm pleased that at least it's English, but wish I could get some locally," says Ian. Nevertheless, most UK flour comes from Canadian wheat.

As Ian releases water from the millpond, the wooden waterwheel and the 144-year-old machinery come to life. He carefully feeds grain into the hopper, spreading it between two flat stone wheels - one fixed and the other revolving. As the stones are brought together, the grain is ground and flour trickles down into the waiting bag below. The various sounds emitted from the cogs and wheels tell him if it's all going to plan. It's as simple as that.

The packaging is simple and effective - filled and sealed by Ian Burt - the emblem of a one-man cottage industry. Plain fawn-coloured bags are franked carefully with a series of rubber stamps.

A new line will emerge soon using local spelt grain. Somerset spelt, a cousin of wheat, is grown on the Sharpham Park estate near Glastonbury. Initial orders look promising, so look out for Somerset spelt flour on the shelves of your local shops.

Burcott Mill organic flour is in great demand. Almost 30 tons are produced every year and the flour sells well in retail outlets all over Somerset, including White Row Farm Shop in Frome, Barleymow's in Chard and Puxton Park in Weston-super-Mare. Food miles are the biggest issue these days as consumers become more conscious of their food's provenance and Ian delivers around Somerset, finding a good welcome and new customers wherever he goes.

Somerset chefs clamour to use Burcott Mill's organic flour, which is certified by the Soil Association and marketed under the Levels' Best brand. Wanting to see the next stage, I drove into Wells to meet one of the city's top chefs, Adam Fellows, at Goodfellows restaurant in Sadler Street. "I always prefer local products; from my point of view, local is much better and Ian Burt's flour is such good quality," enthuses Adam. He makes pastry and eight different types of bread with Burcott flour. We sampled some - a long-forgotten delicious taste of real wholemeal bread.

Being the village miller was an honourable occupation for centuries, but today there are more Members of Parliament in the UK than there are millers. Ian Burt spends much time in the mill, making a small profit, but not a living... that's provided by the guest house next door. "There's no way of making a living by milling small quantities, but I'm content to retain an age-old tradition, which doesn't fit the modern world." Talking to Ian, it's impossible to miss the sheer fervour in his eyes and voice - this is a man with a deep affinity for the historic mill.

At weekends - from Easter to the end of September - Ian shows lots of interested visitors around the mill. The tearoom in the yard does good business. "We've grown to love being the guardians of a piece of history; there's been a mill on this site for a thousand years, since Saxon times," he says.

Ian Burt's greatest moment was to sell the first bag of flour produced by his own hands. Then, two weeks later, the lady who bought that first bag came back for more... it was as simple as that. BY MICHEL HOOPER-IMMINS

Burcott Mill, Wookey, near Wells, BA5 1NJ. Mill tours from 11am to 5pm every Saturday and Sunday, beginning 22 March until 28 September. Admission 2.50 adults, 1.50 children. Tel 01749 673118, www.burcottmill.com

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