The organic flour trailblazers from Doves Farm tell us all about baking without gluten, the benefits of beetle banks, and going back to the future with Stone Age grains.
To those in the know, Doves Farm is synonymous with specialist flours. Clare and Michael Marriage have been growing, milling and baking unusual grains according to organic principles for more than 30 years. Their farm and mill in rural Wiltshire has been a longstanding friend to the coeliacs and gluten-free among us, long before avoiding gluten in the diet became a trend.
When they started in the late Seventies they may have seemed quirky and niche, but today their move appears remarkably prescient. With the experience and knowledge they have accrued over the decades, they are now leaders in the field of ancient wheats and grains. Flavour took a tour of their farm and had a poke around their kitchen to glean as much knowledge as we could from these true bread-lovers.
How did Doves Farm become organic?
Michael: My father bought the farm in 1958. At that time it was an average-sized farm of 350 acres. Now, our nearest neighbour farms 2,000 acres of land, and ours is considered to be fairly small. I was interested in organic farming even then. I went to a talk by a couple of farmers who were leading lights in the organic movement and thought I would have a go myself. One of those people was Barry Wookey from Rushall Farm in Berkshire. Pretty much all my grain comes from his son on that farm still. I took the farm on in 1978 and persuaded my father to let me grow one of the fields of wheat organically. The whole farm went organic shortly after that.
Though the “gluten-free” approach seems a recent phenomenon, you’ve been growing gluten-free grains for years. How did that come about?
Clare: It started because my mother was unable to eat wheat but she wanted to eat bread. I knew you could make a kind of bread with buckwheat flour, for example, so we grew some, and I began to adapt those flours to make up recipes and try to make the kind of bread I wanted to make. It was all so that she could enjoy a loaf with us.
The gluten-free flours all need to have approximately the same amount of liquid in a recipe, and I’ve had lots of disasters trying to work out how to make them work. It’s very frustrating when you cook something half a dozen times and it doesn’t work. But when I’m cooking with the grains we produce I’m trying to find ways to use them so that other people can engage with them; I’m not really cooking to my own personal preference. Very often there’s the pull between what those unusual grains will do and what people want to try to make them do. But every recipe is carefully tested so that the flour will do what it says on the bag.
How difficult is it to be organic in a largely industrialised farming culture?
Michael: All farms are aware of their responsibility towards the environment, because they understand it. After all, farms are part of the landscape they work. On organic farms you don’t use fertiliser or pesticides, so you have to use a rotation system. Half of our farm is cereals, and half is grass. In the grass we plant clover to fix the nitrogen which fertilises crops biologically – it’s nature’s engineering. We have 350 ewes grazing it, and their manure is also good for the land. Alternating the fields this way breaks the cycle of pests and diseases, so we don’t need to use pesticides.
We have a wild-bird strip and a beetle bank of tufty grasses, too. Beetles are the lions and tigers of the pest world, and birds eat the insects – but all farms have to take measures to encourage birds, because there are more members of the RSPB than of any political party. It’s a powerful lobby!
What grains have you been growing this year?
Michael: We’ve had a field of paragon wheat, which is shorter than normal wheat and matures later. It has a lower yield per acre, but a higher protein content, which makes it good for bread flour. We’ve grown buckwheat too, which is technically not a wheat. In lots of languages the word for wheat is the same as the word for food. Buckwheat is Russian and some believe it’s a corruption of “black wheat”. And the past couple of years we’ve grown emmer, one of the original wheats, dating back to the Stone Age, and we’re hoping to sell flour from the grain for the first time this year.
Is there a noticeable difference between different flours and grains?
Clare: Starting with wheat, we have hard strong wheat that makes bread-quality flour. Generally speaking, in this country we don’t produce enough wheat of that kind. But in North America, Canada, Eastern Europe and Australia, where the climate is hotter, they grow a different kind of very hard wheat that’s full of protein, which makes a very well-risen loaf. Most farmers in the UK want their wheat to be bread-making quality but, when it’s analysed, it often doesn’t reach the specification at the mill. So it gets sold as an everyday wheat for putting into plain flour or self-raising flour. If you make pastry with a strong flour you’ll roll it out into the tin and then, because of all the gluten in there, it will just spring back. If you use a very plain flour you can roll it out and it won’t pull back. Similarly, you can make bread from plain white flour, with lovely flavour, though it doesn’t rise very much.
Then the ancient grains have different flavours. Einkorn has a very earthy flavour, and emmer has a slightly buttery flavour. Khorasan probably has the least flavour, which might be unfair for me to say, but I think that if you were to conduct a comparative test you would find that to be the case. It is the perfect wheat flour to use if you want to get children to eat wholemeal bread, because it makes a very pale loaf.
Read this feature as it originally appeared on Flavour