As national demand for flour skyrockets in the face of a lockdown home-baking bonanza, a one-man operation at a traditional water-powered Orkney mill is helping keep the country fed.
Birsay’s Barony Mill is thought to be the UK’s sole producer of beremeal, the flour created from bere - an ancient form of barley grown in the islands since Neolithic times and often called the ‘Viking grain’, thanks to its popularity with Orkney’s Norse settlers.
The mill, which normally ceases production in the spring before opening as a summer tourist attraction, has been inundated with internet orders for its 1.5kg bags of beremeal over the past few weeks.
“Before the lockdown we were getting maybe five or six orders a week,” says miller Ali Harcus, Barony’s sole paid employee . “It’s now jumped up to between 80 and 100 orders a week and it’s going all over the UK, from London to Stromness.”
Although best known as the vital component in Orkney bere bannocks, beremeal has lately been experiencing something of a renaissance as a speciality ingredient, one finding its way into everything from biscuits and craft vinegar, to gin, whisky and beer.
This increased interest has been welcomed by the Birsay Heritage Trust, which operates the mill, but nobody could have predicted the positive impact a national health crisis would have on a well-loved, but niche Orcadian product.
“Folk are going online because of the lack of flour in the shops, finding ours and trying it,” says Ali, who has been miller at Barony for the past three years. “I got a shock the first week it happened. We do orders twice a week and had 50-something on the Tuesday and 40-odd on the Friday.
“The woman in the Dounby Post Office looked at me in a funny way when I first came in with the orders,” he laughs. “We have an arrangement now where I just put the orders in the back door with the money for postage and leave it all so they can go through them during the day. I pick up the empty boxes the next day.”
Although Ali had been offered the chance to stay at home during the current crisis, he strongly felt his place was in the mill.
“We thought we could keep the flour going as a lot of local shops are still taking it too,” he says. “I’m on my own, which means I’m not interfering with anybody in terms of social distancing. I’m usually on my own anyway and we’re also being very strict on the no visitors rule at present too.
“Normally, if we were doing big orders, I’d ask one of the trust committee members to come in and give me a hand to bag as it’s so much easier with two. But we decided I’d do it myself and, if it takes a bit longer, it takes a bit longer.”
According to Ali, the boost in beremeal orders is helping offset café and restaurant business the mill has lost from customers who’ve had to close during the crisis. It’ll also help fill the gap left by the mill potentially being unable to open as a tourist attraction that normally welcomes 4,000 visitors each summer.
“Right now, I should actually be in the middle of the big annual clean-up of the mill for the tourists, but I’m not getting to that because of the orders,” says Ali. “We usually stop milling around the end of March, clean up in April and start with tourists in May. And then we begin milling again about the end of September.”
All being well, the mill will open again to tourists at some point in the near future. Until then, it’s “just” a mill.
Ali, who sounds remarkably relaxed about his increased workload, says there’s no chance of the mill running out of supplies any time soon. He’s also hopeful that the quality of the Barony product, and the mill’s efforts to meet UK demand, will see many of its new customers sticking with beremeal once the crisis is over.
“We’re providing a service,” he adds. “The 80 folk who are buying our flour are 80 folk who don’t have to go out to the shops.”
Buy beremeal and other delicious Orkney food & drink products via our new Shop Orkney Online page.
The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.