Ever since I decided to pursue this line of inquiry, I have know that I wanted to bake bread medieval style. What that really means is the topic for a much longer post, but one thing that was obvious was that I would need to mill my own flour.
This simple act, the taking of raw wheat grains and grinding them into powder, is harder than it seems. It requires specialized equipment. Millstones of the proper type or stone and size were shipped hundreds of miles across Europe. This wasn't down out of superstition; it was because the type of stone mattered.
In this modern day, we can easily purchase grain mills, either hand operated or electric, but I wanted a manual one for two reasons -- they're _much_ cheaper and closer to the medieval experience.
My dear wife and daughter were kind enough to get me one for my birthday last week. I got the Back to Basics brand, model 505 or 555 (I can't remember now which it is) which ran about $80.00. Which is very cheap for a grain mill. Electric ones start at about $250 and go up from there.
I knew I was getting a cheap one and was OK with that. After all, I don't really know how often I will really use it. So I went to PCC on Friday and bought 5 lbs. of Wheat Berries (at $0.96 / pound).
This grain mill does not have stone grinding wheels, but instead uses steel cones to mill the grain much like a traditional meat grinder does. The axle of the crank has a thumbwheel which allows one to adjust how fine the output of the mill is. This (at least on mine) is a major problem, as the screw which attaches to the thumb wheel does so poorly, and keeps popping off. So far I have been able to reattach it (by screwing it back together with an allen wrench), but I feat that the more I do this, the quicker it will fall off in the future. I will be contacting the manufacturer.
That aside, I was able today to grind 3 cups of wheat flour. One cup of Wheat Berries into the mill produced about 1 1/3 cups of flour in about 6 minutes. It wasn't what I would call hard work to operate the crank, but it did get tiring after a while.
I used the 3 cups of flour to make a batch of bread in my bread machine. I also made another batch of bread using the same recipe and store bought whole wheat flour. The result was two very good loaves of bread.
Now, many of the web sites I have visited in learning about mills have been going on and one about how fabulous the bread made with freshly ground flour will be. They are primarily aimed at the natural foods / organic foods eating audience and have a very strong bias toward the idea that if you make it yourself it will be better. So one of the first things I wanted to do was to see if this was true.
The two loaves looked vary much the same. Loaf #1 (the store-bought flour) was a little darker than #2. They rose the same amount and looked much the same as they were kneaded and cooked.
sabledrake and I each tried both and agreed. #2 was lighter and had a fluffier texture. It did not take significantly different, though I thought it had some subtle notes of flavor in the aftertaste that #1 did not, but that these would be overpowered by butter or jam or any other sort of flavoring. #2 also had a better crust. It was more a crispy/crunchy version of the center of the loaf, whereas #1 tasted a little burnt in the crust (which is fairly common for bread coming out of this bread machine).
So the final verdict is: Better yes, but only marginally so. Not enough of a difference to make me pay more for "home-ground" flour or do the actual work.
The next step will be to try some more medievally recipes.
Also to start reading Anglo-Saxon Food Production and Distribution.
Also, my parents sent me some money for my birthday, and I have decided that I will use the money to buy some brewing equipment, and then when they come up for thanksgiving, we will try to make some medieval-style ale. This website: Recreating Medieval Ales has a very good discussion of the project.