Wheat and Milling History

The discovery that grain could be ground to make a mixture called meal must have been extremely important because raw wheat is not particularly nice to eat. This mixture was so coarse it had an appalling effect on everyone's teeth. For a long time, meal was used to make only porridge or gruel until the technique of bakingWheat was discovered. Then, as now, the object of the baking was to convert flour into an enjoyable, ready to eat foodstuff.

Very early in history it must have been discovered that a more edible product could be made by separating the ground meal into coarse bran particles and white flour. The advent of weaving made this process possible. Sieves or baskets were made using horse hair or papyrus. Later, Ancient Romans ground and sifted the flour through linen, twice . This was an expensive procedure that only the aristocracy could afford. The whiter flour obtained was called "pollen" meaning a fine powder. The very best grade they called "flos" a word for a flower, being the best part of a plant. So our words "flour" and "flower" originally were the same.

It is thought that the Romans were the first to have started a milling industry using animals or teams of slaves to drive the wheels to grind the wheat. Before this, grinding of meal had mostly been carried out in the home using a device called a hand-quern. The hand-quern consisted of two round flat stones, one above the other. The upper stone was turned by a wooden handle, wheat was trickled in through a hole in the centre, and meal came out around the edge.

Gradual developments in milling techniques, especially the introduction of the rotary mill around 1000BC, meant improvements in flour for baking. Eventually in the 11th Century watermills and windmills enabled real progress.

Most of the common machines, such as the roller mill, were developed by the 1900s and are still in use in present-day mills.


To produce a white bread, a whitener such as alum, or mashed cooked potatoes was added to the mixture. In fact, the desire to have really white bread was so great that ground-up dried bones, chalk or poisonous white lead was added to the brown flour. Thank goodness those practices don't carry on nowadays!