Stones have been grinding grain at Walton’s Mill in Macroom for almost 200 years. Originally built in 1832, it was burned down in 1919 and rebuilt again in 1923, making it today one of the only remaining stone mills operational in Ireland. Little has changed over time in terms of technology and Donal Creedon still carries out many of the same tasks as his forefathers before him. As I chat to him at the doors of the mill he tells me that; “If I was a farmer, I’d still be ploughing with a horse”.
Donal runs an impressive one-man show but he’s happy to state that it’s his hobby as well as his profession. Dealing with suppliers, handling the loads of oat and wheat upon arrival, milling the grain, roasting, packaging and at times delivering. All on top of regular cleaning and maintenance of the site and machinery as well as communications with suppliers, customers, health and safety inspectors etc. It dawns on me the vast array of skills that such a role demands, everything from mechanical knowledge, nutrition, farming, sales, marketing and accounting.
When it comes to baking bread, its clear to see the impact that quality flour can have on the baking process. The conditions in which the grain was grown, the harvest, the milling process, the resulting nutritional and protein content of the flour; all of these factors determine the outcome of the flour and therefore the final loaf. When it comes to milling grain, there are two procedures to get the end result of flour; traditional stone-ground milling or the more popular modern process of roller milling. Donal mills Irish grown organic oats and wheat here in Macroom. He kindly gives me a run-down on the differences between the two procedures. “With stone milling, you’re essentially pulling or cutting the grain apart with the two stones. When you flake roll it, you’re compressing the berry into itself which generates massive heat. This results in impact damage that burns off many nutrients of the grain. Therefore with many roller production operations, nutrients are added back into the flour once it is milled. Roller milled flour does however give the advantage of having a longer shelf life.”
Oats contain more soluble fibre than any other grain, helping to maintain healthy digestion. They are also high in protein and rich in antioxidants. Archaeological evidence shows them to be one of the earliest cultivated crops in Ireland and many Irish people still today include oats as part of their diet, most commonly as oatmeal porridge for breakfast but also in baked goods such as breads, biscuits and muffins. Donal is keeping alive a long tradition that stretches back generations, one that is unlikely to survive as such small-scale operations are unable to cope with the increasing costs associated with insurance, energy and rent. “A hundred years ago in Macroom there were a few stone mills, grain stores and several grain merchants. Today I’m the only one left standing”, says Donal.
Macroom oats are emblematic of the slow food movement. The industrialization of our food system has introduced quicker and perhaps more efficient methods of production, but the resulting product will unlikely surpass the quality of traditional, stone-ground oats such as those produced in Macroom Mill.