PUBLISHED: 11:33 22 September 2014 | UPDATED: 11:33 22 September 2014
W&H Marriage & Sons has been producing flour for the bakers of Essex since 1824, but this Chelmsford business of great history has always been forward-thinking, writes Jackie Brown
Master baker Kelvin Ellam carefully slices into the Victoria sponge, one of eight he’s just created in the test bakery at W & H Marriage & Sons in Chelmsford. Today, Kelvin’s demonstrating to customers the difference Marriage’s flour can make to cakes, pastries and bread over other popular brands.
His confidence in his product is clear and it’s no wonder when the results are so visible - well risen sponge, a light, moist texture and bright colour.
So what’s the secret of Marriage’s flour?
‘At Marriage’s we’re known for making the whitest flour which brings a lightness and brightness to the bake,’ says Kelvin, who’s been baking all his life. ‘It’s all down to quality at every stage of the process, from the high standard of wheat supplied through to the milling process, quality control and packaging. Here at Marriage’s, I test bake up to 100 loaves a week to ensure that all our flour meets the highest standards, whether for professional or home bakers.’
W&H Marriage & Sons Ltd was founded in 1824 by William Marriage and his twin brother Henry when they were just 17 years old. It remains a family business to this day, with William’s great, great, great granddaughter, Hannah Marriage, the latest family member to join the team.
‘Our family has farmed in the local area since 1650, starting out by purchasing two water mills and a windmill,’ says Hannah. ‘In those days, horse-drawn ploughs and carts were used on the land and wheat was milled into flour using wind or water to power the mill stones.
‘However, we’ve always been forward-thinking and were among the first mills to introduce steam engines in 1836. Our current site at Chelmer Mills, in the centre of Chelmsford, was built in 1899 and was built by the railway for easy access to the coal deliveries transported by train in order to power the mill. When built, the mill site would have been in the countryside; however the city has expanded around us.’
The site remains a unique mix of high-tech milling machinery, such as equipment that sorts wheat by colour, and the traditional, such as the 100-year-old French burr stones used to produce stoneground wholemeal flour.
Indeed, the sound of gentle and regular tapping can often be heard in the stone milling area. It’s here that Simon White spends many an hour re-sharpening the stones which have slowly run smooth over time. This highly skilled job, done by hand using time-honoured techniques, was taught to Simon when he joined the company by millwright Jess Whiteman. Simon taps at the stone face with a traditional chisel (comprised of a thrift and a bill) to carve the shallow grooves.
‘I’ve worked at Marriage’s for 23 years and one of my passions is our stone mill plant which is steeped in history,’ says Simon. ‘Stone dressing is a skill that’s remained unchanged since the earliest days of milling and it’s my favourite task. The millstones are cut to have a pattern of ridges and furrows so that the grain can be worked towards the outside edge. It’s a labour of love as each set of stones takes me several weeks to complete.’
Marriage’s is a valued supplier to The East of England Co-op and one of the Sourced Locally suppliers family which bring products from local growers and producers to Co-op shelves in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk. Sharing this local ethos, Marriage’s source English wheat from local Essex farmers where possible, including from the family’s own arable farms only a few miles from Chelmer Mills.
‘We’ve been working together with many of the local farmers that supply us for generations,’ adds George Marriage, the firm’s director. ‘Essex is the best wheat-growing area in the country and sourcing locally helps us to reduce food miles. We also have full traceability, so you can hand me a bag of Marriage’s flour and I’ll be able to tell you the farm, if not the field, it came from. More and more of our customers appreciate this local provenance and quality.’
As soon as a lorry load of grain arrives at the mill, a process of careful testing and monitoring begins.
‘In the last century, millers would have looked at and smelt the grain - and probably bitten it - to see if it was good enough quality,’ explains Andrew Thain, Marriage’s head miller who has worked at the company for 26 years. ‘Nowadays we have a laboratory to do this testing to assess the wheat’s characteristics, including protein content and variety.’
The wheat is cleaned, conditioned and blended before a final sort mechanically by colour to eliminate any remaining impurities. The wheat then passes through a series of rollers which shear open the wheat grains so that the wheatgerm and bran can be separated from the white endosperm by sieving. The semolina travels on to reduction rolls to be milled into white flour and for wholemeal flour the bran and germ that have been removed are re-introduced.
Andrew adds: ‘I love the mix of old and new here. Alongside the computerised roller mill, we’re also still milling stoneground wholemeal flours in the traditional way on French burr stones. These stones have been used for milling flour for more than 100 years and play a key part in the flour’s taste and texture.
Marriage’s also source top quality wheat from organically certified farms to produce Organic home baking flours (Organic Self Raising and Organic Plain are stocked at the East of England Co-op). Hannah continues: ‘We’ve seen growing interest from home bakers in the quality of ingredients – when people bake bread and cakes at home they’re putting in time and effort, so they want to use quality ingredients to ensure good results. People are more aware of performance – higher protein strong bread making flours can provide a greater tolerance when baking so you’re less likely to have bread making failures. High quality cake flour will often offer a superior white colour than lower quality flours.’
Customers can make the most of a wide range of bread making and culinary flours, organic varieties and speciality flours from Marriage’s with six flours now available at East of England Co-op stores: Plain, Self Raising, Organic Self Raising, Organic Plain, Strong Stoneground Wholemeal and Strong White (the strong varieties being suitable for bread machines as well as baking from scratch).
Hannah adds: ‘These days we’re seeing a whole new generation of bakers enjoying home baking – as shown by the popularity of TV shows like the Great British Bake Off which have encouraged people to bake more often and be more experimental in their baking. For example, there’s lots of interest in making long fermentation and speciality breads. Not only is baking relaxing as a pastime and popular with young families as a fun activity for children, by making your own bread and cakes you know exactly what ingredients are going in and you have the flexibility to tweak recipes to make them healthier.’