Not since the #BinGate scandal of 2014's The Great British Bake Off has the UK's bread community been so incensed. The problem? Flour. Or, rather, the lack of it. Baking has become the thing "to do" during lockdown, as people try to fill the void left by Greggs with high hopes of achieving the perfect sourdough crumb.
As a result, demand for household flour has increased exponentially, leading to upset when people aren't able to get their hands on the powdery white stuff. With the nation trapped inside, this conflict is playing out online in a bitter war of words. The scarcity of flour – on top of an already raised national anxiety – is leading to a new phenomenon: flour shaming.
Forums and social media – Mumsnet and Facebook cooking groups, mostly – are flooded with posts from people outraged about the flour shortage, arguing passionately about who is most "deserving" of the white gold. For seasoned bakers, hostility has mostly been directed either at "the sourdough brigade" (new bakers) or stressed-out parents buying flour to make homemade Play-Doh for their kids.
"Fucking crafts," Jen, a mum of two who baked regularly before the shortages, says over email. "That could obviously be used to make bread and you can still buy Play-Doh on Amazon, but you can't get flour for love or money. It's hugely wasteful and irresponsible. If it was already in their cupboards, fine, but actually going out and buying something that's in shortage to make Play-Doh is tomfoolery!"
On the other side of the argument are the novice bakers. That is, mostly young people who have decided that now is the time to learn a new skill, and are understandably defensive about their "right" to flour. Tensions are high at the moment, and aggressively kneading a big wad of dough is proving to be the perfect distraction for many during a crisis. As one user posted in a Facebook cooking group: "I bake every day. It's what's keeping me sane and stops me crying in Sainsburys."
"If people want to take up baking, let them," says Mayah Riaz over email. Normally the owner of a celebrity management and PR agency, Mayah has had more time to spare since lockdown, and has taken up baking. "I understand the uproar with a shortage of toilet paper, but why aren’t the 'old school' bakers having the same reaction to pasta shortages? Everything is in short supply."
Then there's the crafting contingent: parents with bored toddlers at home and an incessant need to "create memories". One such poster on a Mumsnet thread said, in response to criticism of parents using flour to make Play-Doh : "Perhaps you could broaden your choice of carbohydrates, think about why the supply chain has failed and stop guilting parents for doing something with their children that doesn't involve a screen. You don't have a monopoly on flour because you’ve been making bread since 1991."
Although the range of ages and backgrounds for seasoned bakers is diverse, most won't have experienced any kind of shortages within their lifetime. But as flour stocks seemingly started to run dry and that happy baking bliss became harder and harder to obtain, fingers were pointed.
But the thing is, there isn't actually a flour shortage at all. According to the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers, the UK is extremely self-sufficient when it comes to flour production, with 51 flour mills in the country milling wheat, of which 85 percent is grown in the UK. However, the majority of output usually goes straight into the commercial chain – much of which has either shut up shop or is incredibly restricted at the moment.
Food manufacturing and bakeries normally account for 89 percent of flour consumption in the UK, with a further 7 percent heading for export. The amount allocated for household flour is comparatively small, at just 4 percent. But with the unusual events of 2020, millers are having trouble rerouting their products into supermarkets. Strong white, self-raising, rye – up and down the UK, supermarket baking sections continue to remain bare as the supply chain adapts to keep up, despite other frequently panic-bought items such as toilet roll and pasta already coming back onto shelves. The only people this is really a problem for is those with dietary restrictions.
As consumers began purchasing more than the supermarkets could keep up with, people turned to the "Free From" sections of stores – buying up gluten-free flour and pasta at the expense of those who depend on it. This has had a huge knock-on effect for people like Jenna Farmer, a nutritional therapist and writer who suffers from Crohn's Disease.
"For those of us with dietary restrictions, we can't just order a takeaway or make use of whatever we can find in the supermarket," Farmer explains. "So many people in the gluten-free community can't get hold of the basics, like gluten-free pasta and flour, since it's been snapped up by those who don't need it."
At its core, the flour war is less about people perfecting their pastry and more a psychological manifestation of the national mood in a time of crisis. The whole thing boils down to boredom. Boredom from being stuck indoors, boredom from running out of episodes of Tiger King to watch and boredom that leads to silly notions about baking cakes.
"At the moment, many people are bored and have little to do," explains web psychologist Graham Jones. "So spending time on social networks and forums moaning about any trivial thing gives them a sense they are doing something and contributing and being helpful to others."
In other words, if flour were in short supply during "normal", times no one would care. "People would have been too busy doing other things," Jones adds. "When people are inactive, they worry about the tiniest things that wouldn't normally bother them otherwise."
According to one study, boredom is actually really good for you, and leads to surprisingly brilliant things. Case in point: people are starting to make their own food, and that's leading to a realisation that maybe we don't have to rely entirely on Pret for a delicious treat. A typical bag of flour in a supermarket is 1.5kg, and according to Andy Weston, the owner of artisan bakery Banjo's Bread, you only use "around 500g in total" to make a viable starter. "So that will leave you with plenty to make a couple of loaves."
As well as making us more knowledgeable and resilient, it's also leading to an appreciation of other people's hard work, much of which we've previously taken for granted. Professional patissier Hannah Halliday hopes that a newfound appreciation for the complexities of baking will promote her business in the long-run.
"Before coronavirus, selling a cake was like pulling teeth," she says. "People see that they can buy a cake from a supermarket for £10 and expect handmade/artisan bakes to be as cheap. It's always really mentally destroying for someone to say your art form and work isn't worth that much."
No amount of flour shaming is going to keep the British public away from their democratic right to bake loaves of banana bread or make fucked up looking animals from dough. Just think for a second, and don't stockpile or buy gluten-free items for no reason. Baking is nice, flour is useful – but nobody needs it so desperately to justify calling a three-year-old a "twat" on Mumsnet.
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