Earlier this month I had the pleasure of spending the day with one of the oldest businesses in the UK. Alongside the likes of Royal Mint and Royal Mail, Mornflake has been in business for more than 300 years. They’ve milled oats in Cheshire since 1675, through 15 generations of the Lea family. Who could possibly know more about oats than them?
I was intrigued to hear their story and follow the oats from seed to bowl. I wanted to understand the science behind the entire process, so the natural place to begin was in the fields with Hartley, an oat farmer:
Hartley’s farm is just down the road from the Mornflake mill and he ‘contract grows’ oats for them. From what I gather, that’s quite different to how most crop supply works, in that Mornflake make the promise to take the crop before it has even been planted. Without these contracts in place, farmers have to just hope that they can find a buyer after harvest. Imagine spending 9 months growing something without a guarantee of profit…
Hartley and his wife chose to grow oats because they’re relatively low maintenance but after discussing the effects of the UK weather on the crop, I can safely say that farming is one of the most unpredictable jobs. Each year he watches the crop closely and gambles on the weather to hold out whilst the crop is harvested. Too much rain and the crop falls prey to mildew, too much sun and the oat plants begin to drop the seed on the ground, too much wind and the fields will be flattened.
A fitting remedy for the stress is just to look out over his land at the fields and fields of the most tranquil green:
It’s a shade of green that I’m not familiar with. Much like when I venture South and see the glorious yellow rape fields, I don’t see much oat green where I come from. Oat needs relatively flat land to be grown and harvested efficiently so not much is grown in my home county of Cumbria thanks to the Lakeland fells. I can’t tell you how relaxing it was to watch this sea of green sway gently in the breeze.
We headed for a marquee pitched in the middle of a field, following the path of harvested oats:
I also really enjoyed the seed and nut granola, topped with cream! That’s a game changer for me.
Whilst we ate we heard more from Hartley and the Lea family about why the oat crop is so important to the UK farming industry and how sustainable the process is. Hartley’s farm produce their own compost from Cheshire’s brown bin waste to provide nutrients for the crop. Although making compost is individual to that particular farm, the endeavour to be sustainable is something Mornflake are always pushing the boundaries in. They were one of the first mills to adopt steam power during the industrial revolution and more recently where the first to use modern turbines to power for a mill. Currently at least 10% of the company’s electricity is self-generated.
After breakfast we took a stroll through the fields to find out more about the actual oats hidden within the tips of the plant. The growers work with the University of Aberystwyth to identify and grow crops that require less environmental input (nitrogen and water) and have higher beta glucan content, which is a great for heart health.
With full tummies, we left the field and followed the oats through the factory as they were sieved, shaken, shaved, split and steamed. The process is rather mind boggling and surprisingly long for something as simple as an oat. Unfortunately too many family secrets lay within the mill so no photos were allowed. It’s a shame that you have to miss me wearing a hairnet!
Most impressively, only 0.001% of what arrives at the factory, ends up as waste. Hairs are shaven from the oats and are sent off to motor factories to polish metal work, discoloured oats are made in to animal feeds. They really have thought about it all. The tiny amount that does end up as waste tends to be bits of farm machinery that’s broken off in the field and the inevitable stone or two.
More than 200 different products are made from the humble oat. To name a few: pinhead oats, animal feed, oatbran, oatmeal, car polish, face masks, granola, muesli, cakes, bread and of course, porridge oats (in lots of different sizes).
We spent time with John Lea, the head of the family who told us all about the history of oats and how oat mills were found in Pompeii, perfectly preserved. Mills have been an integral part of feeding the population for nearly two thousand years, perhaps even longer.
In 1941, oats played an exceptionally important role in feeding the UK, something Mornflake are especially proud of. In the depths of World War Two, The Ministry of Food ordered the production of oats to feed the nation and Mornflake ramped up production to fill the rations. Oats are still a staple food in today’s households and seem to be making waves once more in the health foods community.
All of the oat talk really got me thinking…
When I’m in a supermarket, I take the time to make sure the fresh produce that I pick up is the best quality I can find. I don’t just mean checking the fruit for bumps and bruises; things like provenance and sustainability mean a lot to me as a consumer. Meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables all get due consideration.
For some reason though, I took none of this in to account when shopping for cereal, flour or countless other things that come in tins or boxes. Why? I don’t have an excuse anymore.
If you’d like to see more of our visit to Mornflake, here’s a short video: