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THE ARGUMENTS for pubs using local produce are well rehearsed by now. It gives the menu a genuine point of difference, and supports the local...

THE ARGUMENTS for pubs using local produce are well rehearsed by now. It gives the menu a genuine point of difference, and supports the local economy, generating employment and cash, some of which ought to find its way back across the bar.

It also appeals to consumers, who are increasingly interested in the provenance of their food, want to rediscover regional specialities, and are concerned about food miles.

To find out a bit more about how this local food circle can work in practice we set out for Kent to track the life cycle of a huffkin - a traditional East Kent bread roll.

Speciality Breads, a foodservice supplier based near Margate, has revived the art of huffkin baking. Through frozen food supplier Kff, which works with suppliers from across Kent, the bread is provided to pubs operated by local brewer Shepherd Neame. But that doesn't even begin to tell the story.

Bramling Court Farm, Bramling

It all begins at Bramling Court Farm, a few miles east of Canterbury. Here, farmer Andrew Kerr grows paragon wheat. He is the third generation of his family to farm at Bramling, as tenants of the Church of England.

The Kerrs arrived from Scotland in the 1950s to seek - literally - pastures new during a downturn in the agricultural trade. The farm is mentioned in cathedral records dating back to the 15th century.

As well as wheat, arable crops including potatoes, peas, beans, oil seed rape and barley for malting are grown on the 500-acre farm. Livestock were abandoned by Andrew's father - "he didn't enjoy getting up at 3am for milking" - although free range hens still roam the farm to provide eggs.

The spring wheat used to make huffkins is planted in February or March for harvesting in late August. "We were three weeks late planting it this year because it was so wet," adds Andrew.

Paragon wheat is used because it has a high protein yield when milled - around 16 or 17 per cent compared to 13 per cent the average. It also, Andrew informs us, has an ideal Hagberg Falling Number (HFN) for baking - the internationally recognised measure of the viscosity of crushed wheat in water. In layman's terms, that's how long it takes to settle when made into a porridge. Below 120 seconds means the wheat grain is unfit for bakery use, between 180 and 250 is ideal. Paragon has an HFN of around 240.

Andrew stores the harvested wheat in silos on the farm, waiting for the call to deliver it to the mill.

Sarre Mill

The mill is Sarre Mill, the county's only remaining working windmill, and one of very few commercially operated windmills in England. It was built in 1820 and is close to Bramling Court Farm.

Steam was installed to supplement wind power in the 1880s, and upgraded to a gas generator at the turn of 20th century. The sails were removed around 1920 and the mill closed in 1940. In 1985 the Hobbs family purchased it and reconstruction work started the next year. This was completed in 1991, when the restored sails turned for the first time in just over half a century.

Today, the business is owned by Liz Bligh. The mill turns two or three times a week, on electricity when the wind declines to co-operate. As well as flour produced in the mill, in the on-site shop Liz sells freshly baked bread, local produce such as sweet and savoury preserves, hot and cold drinks, and snacks.

Most of the original machinery survives, and is in use today. The mill has one set of Derbyshire peak stones and one set of French burrs. Patriotism aside, it's the latter which miller Derek Adams believes produces the best flour.

Having worked on the restoration of the mill, Derek has turned a labour of love into a profession. The trick to traditional milling is to grind slowly so the stones don't heat up enough to 'cook' the flour, preserving nutrients as well as capturing more of the flavour of the wheat.

"It's not a problem with the wind, but when the generator's on you have to be careful," says Derek.

This monitoring is done by the traditional 'miller's thumb' method, whereby Derek checks the flour falling into the sacks to ensure that the texture is right. He makes adjustments to the grind by a system of ropes and pulleys. The result is white and wholemeal flour - both made from the same sacks of Andrew's Bramling Court wheat.

Speciality Breads

Speciality Breads doesn't just bake with Sarre Mill flour.

"We have several hundred lines altogether," says Carolyn Macleod, managing director of the company. These range from a basic white bap to more exotic fare such as focaccia, ciabatta and bread flavoured with anything from walnuts to sun-dried tomatoes.

Working with suppliers such as Kff, bread is baked and frozen on site at Margate, and collected for delivery to hotels, restaurants and caterers around the UK. The bakery employs 34 people and runs 24 hours a day, six days a week.

"We have five lines made with the flour from Sarre Mill. It gives us a great story to tell," says Carolyn. These lines include the huffkin and a new variant, the mini-huffkin.

Made with eggs and milk, the huffkin "is similar to a brioche, although not as sweet. It may be a variant of the brioche, there were a lot of French Huguenots who settled in this part of Kent," muses Carolyn.

As well as its light texture, what characterises a huffkin is the dent in the top. While this may traditionally have been achieved with a baker's finger, for food hygiene reasons it is now accomplished with sophisticated huffkin-denting technology which unaccountably resembles the blunt end of a bread knife. The fresh-baked bread is rapidly packed and frozen to ensure that it reaches the customer in prime condition.

The Royal Albion Hotel

In this case, the customer is the Royal Albion Hotel in the seaside town of Broadstairs, a Sheps managed operation around four miles from the bakery. The Kentish breads are on the list of local produce available to the Faversham brewer's pubs, although this does, of course, highlight one of the issues pubs face with upmarket bread. Basically, bread is a freebie, served up alongside the meal.

"While customers will remember a great basket of bread, they won't necessarily stop eating somewhere if the bread in unmemorable," says Carolyn.

So is there any value to pubs in paying for upmarket bread? That's a question which has been exercising Shane Godwin, newly-installed as manager of the Royal Albion - and he thinks he has a solution. "We're going to move the bread from the side to the centre of the plate," he says. "The huffkin is a great local product and we need to make the most of it."

So, as a lunchtime menu, Shane has introduced filled huffkins, using a range of fillings served in the roll along with a side salad. The eight choices include Kentish beef cooked in Spitfire gravy, local sausages with Spitfire braised onions, smoked salmon and coronation chicken.

It's an imaginative solution which may just help to put the huffkin back on the culinary map of Kent.

How local?

With managed pubs across the South East, clearly not every Shepherd Neame pub can serve huffkins with so few food miles travelled.

However, in this example the journey from field to plate as the crow flies was around 12 miles and the whole process, allowing for delivery of the rolls from Kff's storage dept in Ashford, took place within a radius of around 25 miles.

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