In this edition of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle steps back in time in Ireland’s last water-powered mill
Some food stories take you straight back in time.
Ballyminane Mill has been in operation since 1832. Today, it is the last water-powered flour mill in Ireland, a tangible piece of history brought into the 21st century. Michael Murphy bought the mill in 1905, beginning a new family tradition; in time, his son, Aidan, took over. Aidan’s nephew, John Murphy, has been the custodian of Ballyminane since 2011. “I learned everything from Aidan,” John tells me. “He was the last master miller of his generation.”
There is a lot to learn. “This is nothing like industrial mills, where you just push a button,” John says. Once the water is allowed into the mill, it flows into timber buckets, and the weight of the water turns the French burr milling stones.
“A French burr mill consists of two big, four-foot stones,” he explains. “The bed stone on the bottom is stationary. The top stone, known as the runner, is the one that moves.” For the miller who knows what he’s doing, this is more efficient than using an electric, steel roller mill. “You can alter the speed to adjust how finely the grain will be ground, depending on how much water you allow through the mill.”
In addition to providing sustenance, learning how to use grains as food forever changed the way humans lived; in many ways, our ability to cultivate, mill and trade grain marked the beginnings of civilisation. For millennia, stone milling was the only way to turn grain into flour, and pairs of millstones have been found at sites of ancient settlements across the world. Water-powered mills were common throughout Europe for most of known history; farmers would sell grain to the mill in their area, and the miller would process that grain and sell the resulting flour on to local bakers.
John takes pride in having a skill so central to our history, yet so rare in the modern world. “It’s interesting, knowing you’re the only one in the country who can run a mill like this. Grinding the flour is all to do with sound and feel. It’s very tactile. You can run your flour through your fingers and know whether it’s coarse or extra coarse, and how to adjust the flow accordingly.” Working in a river valley, surrounded by the sounds of running water, his daily grind is a peaceful one. “It’s very picturesque,” he says. “Very tranquil. I like that.”
Wheat is made up of three parts: the husk (also known as the bran), the germ and the endosperm. While the endosperm is technically the only part of the grain needed to make flour, the majority of the nutrition is contained in the bran and germ. Because the movement of the millstones crushes the entire grain, stoneground wholemeal flour contains both, rendering it very high in fibre and retaining all the vitamins, minerals, enzymes and amino acids naturally present. The French burr method also gives the flour a unique nutty flavour that’s a throwback to how it used to taste, making Ballyminane Flour different from any other on the Irish market today. In 2019, this authenticity garnered John a prestigious Euro-Toques award for Best Artisan Produce of the Year.
John’s business is small-scale, with a workforce of one. “Just myself,” he says. “A one-man show.” When he took over the mill in 2011, he originally sold his flour to retailers under the name Uncle Aidan’s. However, in early 2019, he started trading as Ballyminane Mill, focusing instead on larger bags sold to the foodservice sector. “This worked out better for me, as it took less time to fill the bags and was much more profitable.” Unfortunately, with the mill depending almost solely on the hospitality industry and — unbeknownst to anyone — covid-19 looming on the horizon, it also left his business vulnerable.
“When covid hit last year, and suddenly there were no hotels or restaurants to supply, my business was shut down instantly,” he says. “I have a young family. Mouths have to be fed. I had to go and get a job for myself.” For the time being, John is making ends meet by working with a neighbour contracted to the County Council, doing local jobs such as upgrading paths. He is currently selling his flour through his website and in a few local shops. “I hope to recover maybe 70% of my business once this is over,” he says, his voice serious, “but I’m very aware that many of those hospitality businesses won’t be reopening.”
“When the first lockdown started, there was a great buzz,” John continues. “Everyone was doing it right, staying at home and baking. Those first 6-8 weeks, people were going mad for the flour. After that, we were basically forgotten.” With vaccines underway and an end to this endless pandemic in sight, it is time to put your money where your mouth is. When we chug, blinking, out of this long, unpredictable tunnel, I — for one — want to look around to see as many Irish businesses reopening as possible. Choosing Irish products, especially those from smaller businesses, will help to ensure that this is the case.
“Everyone talks about buying local and that’s very important,” says John, sounding tired, “but I think people get a bit lost when they’re in the shops, and they end up choosing the cheaper option. By paying just a little bit more, you can support your local producer. That really has a much bigger impact than people realise.” With a new website up and running, Ballyminane Mill Bespoke Handcrafted Stoneground Wholemeal Flour can now be bought directly from John online — an easy way to do just that.
“It’s very important to me and to my family that the mill is kept going. We are so proud of it — there’s so much history there. That mill has survived through two World Wars, through the Great Famine, everything. I own the place, but I think of it more as being a caretaker. I hope that my son might take it on when he gets older.” With any luck, covid-19 will be just another part in the long and continuing history of Ballyminane Mill — a story that takes us not just into the past, but forwards, too.