If you’re looking for a sexy food experience, a flour mill isn’t it.
Usually located on the backside of a town near easy transportation like railroad tracks and four-lane highways, they aren’t built for beauty. The towering silos, dusty loading docks and industrial buildings are shaped by what they do: Receive truckloads of wheat. Grind it up. Ship it out.
In tiny Henderson, a worn-down nub of a town 40 miles northeast of Raleigh, Scott and Hunter Hartness have staked their lives on their mill. As American flour has become a commodity that has been swallowed up by the drive toward conglomerates and giant food companies, the Hartnesses’ Sanford Milling stands as a rarity, one of a handful of family-owned mills left in the country.
With only 20 employees, they make three brands of low-protein, soft-wheat flour, crucial to the creation of traditional Southern specialties like biscuits and pound cakes: Daily Bread, mostly used by home bakers, and Snow Flake and Hartness Choice, used in food service, including beloved restaurants like Flo’s Kitchen in Wilson and Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen in Louisburg. If you’ve ever pulled through the drive-through at a Biscuitville, you’ve eaten Sanford Milling flour.
“We’re making 19th century flour,” says Hunter Hartness. “We’re trying to keep the technology simple.
“Simple is better.”
Six years ago, Scott Hartness wrote to The Observer in the midst of a baking crisis: The disappearance of Red Band flour, a household favorite across the Carolinas since the 1920s. Made with Southern-grown soft winter wheat specifically for biscuits, pie crusts and tender cakes, it had a devoted regional following. But to its new owner, the J.M. Smuckers Corp. of Ohio, it was a niche product. In 2009, Smuckers discontinued Red Band to focus on its biggest Southern brand, White Lily.
All over North Carolina, bakers began to howl. Letters, emails and calls poured in to The Observer: Our pound cakes are gummy, not fluffy. Our biscuits are hockey pucks.
And in the middle of that, we got an email from Scott Hartness.
“I do wish that cooks would try some of the local brands and realize that there is still flour like our grandmothers used to use,” he wrote. “And it is grown and milled locally.”
A culture baked into our souls
Flour seems so simple. It’s just ground-up, sifted wheat. You dump it into a bowl to make pie crust, scoop it into a cup for a batch of biscuits, beat it with butter, eggs and sugar for cake.
But there’s more to it than white powder. Our flour shapes our food, as surely as a baker shapes a loaf of bread.
In some parts of the country, the wheat that grows best is hard summer wheat. It’s high in protein, so dough made from it develops lots of the stretchy bands of gluten that are perfect for crusty breads.
In the Southeast, the wheat that grows best is soft, red winter wheat. Colonists brought it with them from Europe and planted it all along the East Coast, but especially in the South. It’s called winter wheat because it likes a little cold, but not too much. Plant it in November and it grows slowly, developing underground, until late spring, when it sends up waist-high shoots topped with heads of red kernels.
The kernels are so soft, you can bite through them. Grind them and you get a flour that’s low in protein. With less protein, it develops less gluten, making it perfect for soft baked goods.
“Nobody said ‘protein’ in those days,” says Glenn Roberts, the grain historian and food entrepreneur behind Anson Mills in Columbia. “Farmers would say, ‘I’m growing biscuit wheat.’ ”
To our grandparents, flour was what came from the nearest mill. People baked by feel, adjusting to each batch.
Every crossroad had a mill. Drive through the country and look at the names – ‘Something Mill Road.’
Scott Hartness, Sanford Milling
“Every crossroad had a mill,” says Scott Hartness. “Drive through the country and look at the names – ‘Something Mill Road.’ ”
But in the last 60 years, that system has disappeared, swept up in the efficiency of consolidation. To stay cheap, flour got big, linking small mills into big companies. To make products that could be sold all over the country, they had to wipe away the idea of regional baking styles and create all-purpose flour, mixed from wheats with different protein levels.
It’s reliable. It’s uniform. But it definitely isn’t regional.
Keeping it in the family
From thousands of small mills at the end of the 19th century, there are now an estimated 119 mills owned by a small group of companies. There are only 35 independently owned mills in the U.S. North Carolina has six.
Scott and Hunter Hartness’ great-grandfather started with a wooden grist mill outside Shelby in the 1870s, grinding corn and wheat. Their grandfather moved to Sanford, in the center of the state, in 1924 and opened a bigger mill that burned down in 1947.
119: Estimated number of mills in the U.S.
35: Number of independently owned mills.
6: Independently owned mills in North Carolina
“My dad was 12, 13,” says Scott. “He thought it was the end of the world.” But it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. The next day, their grandfather got an offer to buy a newer, more modern mill in Henderson.
The Hartness boys spent summers pushing brooms and swinging shovels, their sweat mixing with the flour in the air, making dough on their arms.
By college, Scott wanted nothing to do with milling. He got an art degree and became a jewelry salesman. He’s goofy and talkative, a born salesman. Hunter is quiet and analytical. He loved the mill and its intricacies.
Hunter, now 50, got a degree in milling science and came back to run the mill. Scott, 53, eventually realized he could sell anything, even flour. They came together to run the business, with Scott wrestling sales and orders while Hunter keeps the mill running, a six-floor collection of cast-iron equipment, wooden hoppers and nylon sifters.
Hunter likes to say that everybody knows how furniture is made: You start with a tree, saw it into boards, nail it together. Explaining flour is harder.
“Nobody knows how flour is made.”
No single person invented modern milling. It’s a collection of machinery and processes that vary from company to company. Even when you walk through the mill to watch, it’s hard to follow:
It starts outside on a loading dock, where trailers of red wheat arrive almost every day from all over North Carolina.
When wheat arrives, it pours through a grid and goes under the building, where it starts its trip through the mill: It’s sieved, to separate good kernels – smooth and red – from field trash and immature or broken kernels.
A small operation can’t afford to waste, so the hulls and rejected kernels get ground into animal feed, along with byproducts like bran. (It also has a following among moonshiners, who like to mix it with corn to form a cap on mash, to hold in yeast.)
The good kernels are soaked in water for eight hours, to soften them so they don’t explode as they go through the rollers. Pneumatic tubes shoot the kernels up to the top floor, then down:
Past the rollers, heavy steel rolling pins that move at different speeds to roll open the kernels like a book. Blowing up and down through the tubes, separating the crushed wheat into streams of starch, bran and germ, called middlings. Through the sifters, big cabinets that hold stacks of screens with holes finer than a human hair. They shimmy like hula-dancing bedroom chests, shaking ground wheat through the screens to separate it into fine powder.
Hunter Hartness pulls out a miller’s slick, a palm-sized piece of metal polished as shiny as a mirror, and sticks it into different tubes, pulling out piles to show flour at different stages, from yellow to gray to egg shell, as different grades of flour are created.
Milling is a secretive business, he says. He’s happy to walk visitors through his mill, but many mills won’t do that.
“The milling world would rather have it that way,” he says.
“Our niche is that we make it slowly. You can see what’s being made here. It’s an art, it really is.” Hartness prefers to mill more slowly because it keeps down temperatures. Cool milling, he says, preserves more flavor.
Red Band was discontinued just about the same time that the original mill for White Lily, in Knoxville, Tenn., was shut down. The brand moved to Ohio. While the Smuckers company says that nothing has changed in how White Lily is made, bakers have debated it ever since. Has it changed, or is it just perception?
Hunter Hartness thinks any change, from where the wheat is grown to which equipment you use in a mill, will inevitably produce a different flour.
We could shut down and make Snow Flake in Toledo and it wouldn’t be the same. To shelve Red Band?
Hunter Hartness, Sanford Milling
“We could shut down and make Snow Flake in Toledo and it wouldn’t be the same.
“To shelve Red Band?” He shakes his head.
A new day for baking
In many ways, North Carolina is experiencing a baking renaissance. With more interest in local food and sustainable agriculture, there’s also more interest in artisan food production. Experiments are going on all over the state, from attempts to grow hard, high-protein wheats to stone-ground milling.
“There’s so much more viable activity in North Carolina,” says Glenn Roberts. “There’s a lot more forward thinking.”
The man who spread Carolina Gold rice and Anson Mills grits all over New York City, Roberts is now trying to bring back heirloom white wheats that disappeared from the Carolinas in the 1800s. He finds a lot of interest around the state in growing different wheats to create flours for specialized baking.
One of those mills is Carolina Ground, a stone-ground flour mill in Asheville. Jennifer Lapidus started it to create artisan flour for bakeries like LaFarm in Raleigh and Carolina Artisan Bakery near Charlotte and for home bakers who care enough that they’ll order bags online and pay for shipping.
“We launched the mill to connect the farmer and baker in the Southeast,” she says. “What’s unfolded is, I spend part of every day interacting with people across the country who are trying our flours. They’re sending me pictures of what they’re doing.”
Baking trends are overturning the idea that you can create one kind of flour to work for everything. Wheat isn’t uniform, and neither is flour. While attention is being paid to organically grown wheats and stone-ground flours, older soft-wheat flour brands haven’t gotten as much attention. But some people are starting to appreciate the value of having a lot of kinds of products.
Having many varieties of plants creates biodiversity. Having many regional brands creates a kind of supermarket biodiversity, keeping the regional flavor of traditional cooking styles.
“Local is about transparency, familiarity with where your food comes from,” says Joe Lindley, who grinds organic flours at Lindley Mills outside Graham. “It’s better for the country to have lots of smaller producers.”
Hartness flours are hard to find in stores. Even some of their local stores don’t stock them. But you can find their brands in pockets around the state, especially in small chains like Piggly Wiggly and IGA. They’re also used by commercial bakers. Chef Amy Tornquist of Watt’s Grocery in Durham only uses Hartness Choice, a habit that started when she worked for Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill in college.
“I am one of those people who’s so old-school,” says Tornquist. “I don’t use fancy-fancy flour. Flour is really particular. One of the things about Europe is that they have like 20 different kinds of flour. It really defines that gluten in a way that we don’t have.”
Finding smaller brands like Snow Flake and Daily Bread in supermarkets is hit-or-miss. You might find Daily Bread self-rising in one neighborhood or Daily Bread all-purpose in another, based on how many customers still bake biscuits. Larger chains, Hartness says, only want national brands.
“ ‘Flour’s flour,’ ” he says the store buyers tell him. “Well, it’s not, is it?”
The people who understood soft-wheat flours are disappearing, he says: “All the little old ladies are dying.”
Making the Cake Lady happy
Since Red Band disappeared, people have tried all kinds of things. Some add a few tablespoons of cake flour, like Swans Down, to a mainstream flour like Gold Medal, lowering the protein a little. Others don’t like that option, saying that Swans Down adds a starchy flavor.
Kathy Dixon of Charlotte is a home baker so serious, her fans call her The Cake Lady. She uses a sour cream pound cake recipe her aunt gave her in 1969, the year she got married. She’s a widow now, but she still makes that cake, for weddings, for friends, for her kids.
Once a month, she takes a pound cake to the Supportive Housing Communities, a small complex on North Davidson Street where people who have been homeless get help setting up new lives. They use it to celebrate whoever has a birthday that month.
After they sing “Happy Birthday,” men shuffle over for a slice of Dixon’s cake, dense yet tender, topped with white icing, baked in an 18-inch cake pan she’s had for years.
Dixon used to be a devoted user of Red Band flour. When it disappeared, she had to start experimenting.
“I tried Gold Medal. I tried Pillsbury, Southern Biscuit and Swans Down. I even literally sifted Southern Biscuit 27 times. It’s not the same. With each flour, it just has a different taste and a different texture.”
For a while, Dixon made cakes completely out of Swans Down cake flour, an expensive choice at $3.79 for a 2-pound box, vs. $3.59 for 5 pounds of White Lily.
A few months ago, after a trip to Eastern North Carolina to visit Sanford Milling, The Observer gave her bags of Snow Flake we brought back. She was thrilled. Even friends she gave the flour to noticed the difference.
“I’m making all my cakes with it now. I love the flour. You know, you can tell a difference in the flour, just looking and picking it up with your thumb and finger. It is very light.”
That’s the kind of thing that keeps the Hartness brothers going.
“We beat the odds,” says Scott Hartness. “We should be a statistic.”
A tale of 5 cakes
The difference between a good cake and a great cake is sometimes subtle. Can you tell the difference by just changing the brand of flour? We gathered five brands of all-purpose flour: Gold Medal, Snow Flake Short Patent, Hudson Cream Short Patent, Southern Biscuit and White Lily. We used the same recipe, a classic cold-oven pound cake from “The Gift of Southern Cooking,” by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock.
We used the same tube pan and beat every ingredient the same amount of time.
The result? The low-protein flours made cakes that rose noticeably higher, with much softer textures.
Gold Medal All-Purpose: It produced the smallest cake, with a rise of only 2 1/2 inches. The crust was smooth and tight, and the cake texture was very dense, with little space between the crumbs.
Snow Flake Short Patent and Southern Biscuit All-Purpose: Both cakes rose to 2 3/4 inches high. Each had a looser structure and softer texture, with a softer crust.
White Lily All-Purpose: The cake rose a fraction of an inch higher, to 2 5/8 inches. Like the Snow Flake and Southern Biscuit cakes, it had a softer texture and was visibly more porous.
Hudson Cream Short Patent: We were surprised to find this flour, made in Kansas from Midwest soft winter wheat, in a Charlotte-area Food Lion. The cake made with it rose the highest, a full 3 inches, and developed the brownest crust. The interior texture was similar to Snow Flake, Southern Biscuit and White Lily.
The N.C. flour mills
ADM, Charlotte. Part of a nationwide network of mills that grind flour for Archer Daniels Midland.
Bartlett Milling, Statesville. Owned by a company based in Kansas City, Mo., it mills both flour and animal feed.
BayState, Mooresville. Part of a nationwide network based in Quincy, Mass., that makes a variety of flour styles, including rye, organic, and medium- and high-protein flours.
Boonville Flour and Feed, Boonville. A stone-ground mill northwest of Winston-Salem that makes Daniel Boone cornmeal and grits and Our Best plain and self-rising flour.
Carolina Ground, Asheville. A cold-stone milling facility that makes whole-grain bread, pastry and rye flour from certified-organic wheat from Southern farms.
Lindley Mills, Graham. Based on the grounds of stone-ground mill established in 1755 and now owned by descendants of the original builder, it makes organic specialty flours for restaurants and food companies, including most of King Arthur’s organic flour and the flour used in Newman’s Own pretzels. It also makes sprouted whole-grain organic flour.
Old Mill of Guilford, Oak Ridge. A restored water-powered, stone-ground mill that dates to the late 18th century, it makes cornmeal and flours, including spelt, whole wheat, rye, self-rising and all-purpose.
Renwood Mills, Newton. Formerly Midstate. Maker of short-patent (low-protein) flours and baking mixes, including Southern Biscuit and Tenda-Bake brands. Southern Biscuit is most often found in local supermarkets as a self-rising flour, although all-purpose is also made.
Sanford Milling, Henderson. Maker of Daily Bread, Snow Flake Short Patent and Hartness Choice self-rising and low-protein flours, both for supermarkets and for commercial baking. Daily Bread self-rising is found at some local stores; Snow Flake is mostly found in Eastern North Carolina.
Cold-Oven Pound Cake
To test five brands of flour, we used a classic recipe from “The Gift of Southern Cooking,” by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. The original pound cake recipes didn’t use baking soda or baking powder. They got lift from air beaten into the butter and eggs. Starting the cake in a cold oven and raising the temperature several times allows the cake to rise slowly without developing a crust before it has fully risen.
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 large eggs, room temperature
2 1/4 cups sifted flour
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Butter and flour the bottom and sides of a 9-inch tube pan. Beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium-low for 5 minutes, until it becomes waxy and shiny. With the mixer running, slowly add the sugar and salt. Continue beating, scraping down the bowl occasionally, until lightly and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. After mixing in the third egg, add 2 tablespoons of the flour, to keep the batter from separating. Add the remaining eggs. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the remaining flour in four additions, making sure not to over-mix it. Gently blend in the vanilla and lemon juice.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and gently drop it on the counter to deflate any large air bubbles. Put the cake into a cold oven and set the temperature to 225 degrees. Bake for 10 minutes, then increase the temperature to 300 degrees and bake for 20 minutes. Finally, increase the temperature to 325 degrees and bake 20 to 30 minutes, until a cake tester or long wooden pick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Remove from the oven and cool on a rack in the pan for 5 minutes. Run a long spatula or knife around the sides to loosen the cake, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.