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From Wild Grass to the Industrial Mill

The history of flour

When we bite pleasurably into our crispy breakfast roll we are scarcely aware that we are eating the result of thousands of years of development. It all started about 10,000 years ago when man began to till the soil, when he learned to breed new grasses from the seed of the wild plant. But it was to be another 4,000 years before our ancestors discovered that these seeds can be crushed between simple grindstones.

Even in the first advanced civilizations the grains were ground by hand, but around 3,000 B.C. the Egyptians introduced an innovation that brought decisive progress to bread-baking: yeast. Using the warmth of the sun they exposed a dough mixed with yeast to a fermentation process, and after baking this yielded a soft, pleasant-tasting loaf of bread. With the aid of further ingredients they improved their art so enormously that they could produce over forty different kinds of bread – and that at a time when the rest of Europe was still having to make do with hard, flat cakes!

But it was the Romans who were the first to grind corn on cone mills – massive structures turned by slaves or animals. This invention of the ancient world was still used by the millers of the Middle Ages. Then, in the twelfth century, a new construction reached the European continent: the windmill, that probably originated in the Orient. And in 1879, at the start of the industrial era, the first steam mill was erected in London.

Scarcely anything in our modern mills is reminiscent of their predecessors from the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Industrial mills now produce hundreds of different types of flour for every conceivable application, and in incredible quantities: every year, 320 million tons of wheat flour alone run off the milling rollers around the world. The Indonesian company Bogasari Flour Mills with locations in Jakarta and Surabaya has a total daily capacity of 16 thousand tons of wheat flour, which makes it the biggest mill in the world.

Wheat milling, especially, has become a global industry with a great responsibility: it now constitutes the basis for feeding one-third of the world’s population.

You can read more about the history of flour in the book “art and flour – a Worldwide Gallery of Flour Sacks”.