EVERY so often I am reminded afresh that journalism is the best profession in the world. There are no limits to new subjects to explore, inspiring stories to tell and dynamic people to meet. This occurred to me most recently as I all but skipped away after having met and interviewed the very energetic and focused young general manager of Overberg-based Eureka Mills, Nico Steyn. While the subject – stone-ground flour – has a history that extends back as far as the 3rd century BC, Steyn and his colleagues’ aspirations for their products are as 21st century, fresh and stimulating as…a newly-baked loaf of bread.
Eureka Mills was founded in 1998 when – following deregulation of the South African wheat market in 1997 – grain-farming cousins, Lafras and Petrus Uys, recognised an opportunity to broaden their wheat interests by establishing a stone-grinding flour mill on their farm between Heidelberg and Swellendam in the Southern Cape. Their key objective was – and still is – to produce a range of nutritious, unadulterated and wholesome stone-ground flour products, which are produced from wheat that is grown as naturally as possible, having undergone the minimum of processing and alteration. Essentially, you might say, they saw a niche opportunity to get a slice of the milling industry.
The mill – which applies some of the most gentle, time-honoured and natural milling techniques ever developed – is an extension of the farmers’ largely biological and eco-friendly approach to agriculture.
In the fields, they work the soil gently with light-toothed implements, shunning more ruthless disc ploughing methods. And, when it comes to seed selection, the farmers (and, since shortly after building the mill, Steyn) work closely with specialists at nearby SSK Agricultural Consultants to ensure that the cultivars they sow are as relevant and classically unadulterated – that is to say, genetically unchanged – as possible. This ensures that the wheat best suits the environment in which it is cultivated and the milling technique that is used. Furthermore, it meets the exact specifications of Eureka’s target market, which comprises largely of artisan or master bakers, whose approach to bread-making is more artistic and traditional than most large commercial bakers.
After harvesting, the farmers leave as much residue on the land as possible. This nourishes the soil with organic material, and augments the lives and activities of helpful organisms like earthworms.
“As a result, the soil’s texture and structure is sustainably improved, and the fields do not require much additional fertilisation,” explains Steyn.
Furthermore, a crop rotation system – during which alternate leguminous (canola) cultivation plays a prominent role – is applied to the fields: “This ensures that the soil is naturally enriched with nitrogen, and helps drastically minimise the chemical control of insects and weeds,” says Steyn. “As a result, the wheat is more naturally sustained and it does not require extensive artificial chemical additives to thrive, which provides us with the purest product possible to mill. And this, after all, is our key objective.”
To boost its own supply, he adds, Eureka Mills also buys in additional wheat from neighbouring farmers as demand requires: “But we only take in wheat that meets our exacting quality standards and which is cultivated the same way as our own crop.”
In the mill, which is operated by 11 people, Eureka applies one of the oldest and simplest ways of making flour – that is, stone-grinding. Rotary grindstones powered by animals were allegedly first used for grinding grains when Rome became the most important power in the western Mediterranean in the 3rd century BC. Over the centuries, millstones have been driven by animals, water and wind power. Today, however – despite Eskom’s capacity problems – electricity is used to drive Eureka Mill’s hand-chiselled granite grindstone and three sets of rollers, which produce the pure, “living” kind of flour demanded by discerning artisan, master and home bakers.
Unlike standard commercial flourmills, which are highly mechanised with equipment that requires up to 14 sets of extremely hot steel rollers or hammers to grind the wheat, Eureka’s process is slower, more labour intensive and considerably gentler.
Steyn explains: “It is our intention, during this less extreme process, to avoid damaging the wheat germ and to prevent destroying valuable vitamins and enzymes, which happens during large-scale commercial milling operations.”
There are, according to an extensive study conducted by Canada’s Ecological Agricultural Projects study in 1991, several advantages to stone-ground wheat flour. Unlike the outcome of other milling processes, says the study, the endosperm, bran and germ remain in their natural, original proportions.
The research project found that: “Because the stones grind slowly, the wheat germ is not exposed to excessive temperatures. Heat causes the fat from the germ portion to oxidize and become rancid and much of the vitamins to be destroyed. Since only a small amount of grain is ground at once, the fat from the germ is well distributed which also minimizes spoilage. Nutritive losses due to oxygen exposure are also limited by the fact that stone-ground flour is usually coarser.”
In addition to this, the study claims that stone-ground flour is preferred by many master bakers and natural food advocates because of “its texture, its sweet and nutty flavour, and the belief that it is nutritionally superior and has a better baking quality than steel-roller-milled flour”.
This is corroborated by loyal Eureka Mills customer, Knysna-based artisan baker Markus Farbinger, whose wood-fired oven bread bakery, Ile de Pain was recipient of the RMB Private Bank Best Small Producer (Bakery) Award for 2007.
“Good bread comes from good grain that is responsibly grown and milled,” he says. “This means respecting the concept of the living seed and letting nature drive the product.”
Farbinger’s words echo those of famous French baker, Lionel Poilâne, who said: “Bread deals with living things, with giving life, with growth, with the seed, the grain that nurtures. It’s not coincidence that we say bread is the staff of life.”
Conventional large-scale milling and stone-grinding can be further differentiated by the fact that during steel roller milling, the grain is crush and the flour released from the endosperm is separated by sifters into different grades according to fineness. The bran and germ are removed in this process. Roller milled whole wheat flour is produced by recombining ground bran with endosperm flour, but the germ is usually left out because it would go rancid. At Eureka Mills, on the other hand, nothing is removed from the product and the company’s flour retains the full complement of wheat germ (about 3%) fibre, natural oils, vitamins and enzymes.
This, says Steyn, not only gives bakers the economical advantage of a 3 to 4 percent higher water absorption potential, but also contributes to a more assimilable food with an extended shelf-life, without the fortification or use of additives, chemicals or preservatives like synthetic vitamins, bleaching, maturing and dough conditioning agents.
With oft-improbable shelf life a dominant concern of supermarket bread aisles, larger commercial flourmills commonly use agents. These are also added to flour to supposed advance nutritional value. These additives are increasingly believed by many to not only result in a range of bland, barely edible breads, but also to contribute to the growing prevalence of gluten intolerance among consumers due to absorption difficulties.
The Eureka Mills range comprises white bread and brown bread, cake, wholemeal, and crushed rye and rye flour. It is available in 2.5 kg and 12.5 kg packs that are branded Eureka Mills Premium Stone Ground Flour.
During 2007, Steyn and his colleagues extended their distribution network and the range is now widely available throughout the Southern Cape, Western Cape and Gauteng. A growing number of bakeries and culinary schools – including Prue Leith and the South African Chefs Academies ¬– are using Eureka Mills flour.
The ongoing challenge, believes Steyn, is to educate consumers about the nutritional and quality benefits of baking and eating products with stone-ground flour: “Although more and more South Africans concerned about their health are changing their dietary habits, many remain unaware of the potential nutritional value of bread, which makes up a major part of their diet,” he says. “We look forward to continually growing our market by building this awareness. After all, there is great opportunity to work with discerning bakers and consumers who are increasingly looking for healthier and tastier options. Our flours are created for artisan style breads, which recognise that bread and bread-making is an ancient form of art and sustenance that deserves more attention than it regularly gets from large, mechanised operations.”
Indeed, with an attitude like this, it’s clear that we are a nation that is alive with opportunity, and that there are individuals and organisations out there that are ready to rise to the occasion. I love my job.
Eureka Mills: (028) 722 1887. http://www.eurekamills.co.za
(First published in Food Review. Photograph: Eureka Mills.)