The earliest methods, which date back to Prehistoric or Neolithic times, were hardy but effective, and can still be found in use in parts of the world today.
The Querns consist of two stones, the bottom stationary one, known as the “Saddle stone” or Quern, and the upper or movable one, known as the “Handstone”. The Handstone would be pulled back and forth across the Quern with grain being introduced between the two. This was more of a crushing process than a grinding one, and would have produced a pretty coarse flour. The name “Saddle” derived from the characteristic shape that the bottom stone assumed after many years of use - resembling a rudimentary horse's saddle.
Different materials were used in the Querns, from pigments and bark to nuts, seeds, herbs and fruits. The most important material however was grain to make flour for use in baking. These stones were often very heavy, and may have required two people to operate.
In the Stone Age, Rotary Querns appeared which were more circular in appearance. The top stone had a wooden handle placed off centre and a central hole through which grain could be introduced, while the stone was turned by the handle.
It was within the great classic civilisations from the Sumerians to the Romans, also in the Indus, that further strides were taken in milling techniques. Flour became finer and finer but it was still what we might call “wholemeal” flour, and very coarse. Eventually mills were constructed from much larger stones that were turned by a number of slaves or animals to produce increasingly fine flours.
We recently made a pilgrimage to Pompeii to visit the bakeries that are preserved there to this day, where you can still see the millstones and bakers’ ovens as they were in AD 79 when the volcano erupted. One of the ovens still contains the remnants of carbonised bread.
The next stage was the discovery that separating out the coarse particles, the bran and wheatgerm, produced a much finer and far more appealing product. It is believed that the weaving of baskets or crude sieves, either from hair or papyrus, was the first step in purifying flour. It is the Romans who are credited as being the first to sieve flour through linen to produce what was effectively the first white flour, although this was certainly done earlier by other peoples. Linen was very expensive and therefore it would only have been the very rich who could afford to have the best flour. It is thought that the word "flour" is derived from the Roman “Flos” meaning “flower”, or the best part of the plant.
The need for more processed flour was driven both by the increasing size of communities and the need to provide constant food supplies. Smaller groups could still provide enough ground grain using simpler methods, but with growing numbers of population through Imperial expansion and with slaves and soldiers needing to be fed, centralized production was vital.
The Romans are credited with many of the early advances in the mass production of flour, although the Romans learnt much technology from the preceding civilisations they conquered. In effect from 1000BC till the 1100’s there was little further significant change until watermills and windmills became common, with much of this technology emanating from China. By medieval times there were three general grades of flour - wholemeal, sifted brown, and sifted white, the latter actually being much browner or creamy-coloured than the pure white flour which was to become available in Industrial/Victorian times from finer grinding by roller mills and multiple sifting.
Today, there are two systems of milling in common use. The traditional rotating stones, little changed in principle from ancient times and the much faster and more modern technique of roller milling that was invented during the Industrial Revolution of the 1900s.