Thursday 22 August 2019

Odlums flour still the power behind every great bake off

Local heroes: Fifth-generation miller Nigel Odlum has seen the flour business fall and rise - and with the Irish home-baking market worth over €125m a year, it's no wonder that parent company Valeo is happy to savour the smell of freshly baked bread

Milling has changed hugely in the last 30 years,’ says Nigel Odlum
Milling has changed hugely in the last 30 years,’ says Nigel Odlum
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

Harvest time is Nigel Odlum's fondest memory of his childhood.

The fifth-generation miller and now operations director of Odlums, grew up in Portlaoise - where the Odlum family's first flour and oatmeal mill opened 170 years ago.

"I started off working in the business during the summer holidays," says Nigel. "Harvest time was always an exciting time as there was a great buzz around the mill.

"Farmers would arrive in tractors and trailers with freshly harvested grain. This wheat was sampled load by load and tested. Once the farmer got the nod, he would then tip the grain into an intake hopper - and it was then transferred to storage bins before being dried.

"For the farmer, it was the fruits of his hard work to grow the wheat and get it accepted for milling. For Odlums it was the beginning of a new year. It also marked the unknown as to what the harvest was going to produce.

"Harvest time is not such a big occasion today, as wheat is now stored on the farm or in merchants and drawn to the mill as it is needed during the year."

As a teenager, Nigel Odlum often delivered flour to the west of Ireland. Odlums had a large bulk tanker, which at the time delivered to some of the larger bakeries in the West.

"It was always a thrill to go on this lorry, as there were few lorries this size travelling in the West at the time - so it always drew attention when passing through small towns and villages," says Nigel.

The Odlums flour milling business was originally set up by William Odlum in 1845 after he inherited a mill from his aunt.

"William grew the business on from there and acquired more small mills around the country," says Nigel, who has worked for the family business for most of his life. He is therefore well aware of how milling has changed over the years.

"In the old days, farmers brought in their wheat to the mill and the wheat was ground into flour," he says. "Today, we go out and buy the wheat from a merchant. The volume of wheat we're handling today is about 10 or 20 times more than in the past. In fact the whole milling process has changed. In 1845, some of the mills would have had stone mills [which would grind the grain to make flour]. We use steel rolls today."

The original Portlaoise mill laid the roots for the current mill in Portarlington, which is the only mill run by the Odlums business today - and the last remaining operating commercial flour mill in Ireland.

"The mill in Portarlington was located alongside a branch of the Grand Canal which has since been closed," says Nigel. "Back in the old days, the canal was used for transport - and that was one of the main reasons the mill was located there. So the wheat was brought from Dublin in barges to the mill in Portarlington.

"The mill itself was powered by steam engine - and the coal for that came in by barge too. Electrification has since done away with the steam engine. The Portarlington mill is also located close to a railway station - and in the old days, flour was transported by rail. So originally, horse and dray would have been used to get the flour to the station to load up the goods wagon.

"As lorries became more efficient, the barges were used less because you could send a lorry to Dublin with flour in a day - whereas a barge would take between two and three days."

Odlums produces a range of about 120 different flours today.

"Originally we would have produced three or four different flours - mainly self-raising, wholemeals and cream plain flour," says Nigel. "The consumer is much more sophisticated today and is looking for organic and gluten-free flours - so we produce these.

"We have convenience products such as pancakes in a bottle, a tub of flour - for people who don't want spillage in their presses - and convenience packages, such as the small 500g pack of flour for someone who doesn't bake that much. We also do 'Bake Your Own' products, such as bread mixes, scone mixes and so on. We are currently working on a variety of new bread mixes, such as garlic and herb focaccia, multigrain bread and a really good Irish stout bread. We will be bringing these to the market shortly."

Odlums produces 17 million packs of product a year and seems to be cresting a revival wave. "Baking has become very trendy in the past few years," says Nigel. "We have a younger generation who are baking today."

Ironically however, the best-selling Odlum products are still its traditional ones - that is its cream plain and self-raising flours. There has been a big swing back to basics when baking, according to Nigel.

The Odlums website is a useful resource for wannabe bakers and fans of Great Bake Off TV shows. It includes recipes - both for beginners and for the more experienced baker - from chocolate brownies to cupcakes to a delicious banana brulee. There are savoury recipes, recipes for those with special dietary needs - and even recipes for popular wedding cakes.

The site also features baking demonstrations by Odlums baker Catherine Leyden. "People are interested in starting off with the ingredients from scratch - and following Catherine's recipes," says Nigel. "We're getting 150,000 visitors a month to the website."

Having said this, Mr Odlum admits to being "a much better miller than baker. However, I do enjoy using some of the Odlum's bread and scone mixes which always goes down well with the family," he hastens to add.

Odlums currently exports a small amount of its produce to Britain and the US - but is planning to export more.

"We are working on some new concepts which we feel would be very attractive to the diaspora in the United States," says Nigel. "Irish brown soda bread is wholesome and yeast-free and therefore unique to foreign markets. We've also done a lot of work on the whole packaging image - we've rebranded the image so it has a more contemporary feel."

Nigel Odlum, who now lives in Abbeyleix, Co Laois, is married with three children. He has worked for the family business for most of his life. He went to flour milling college in Switzerland for a year where he learnt the theory behind the practical side of milling.

When younger, he also worked for the Manchester milling engineering company, Henry Simon. That company has since been taken over by the large Japanese milling company, Satake.

"At the time I worked with them, Henry Simon specialised in manufacturing milling machinery and designing and installing flour mills," says Nigel. "I was fortunate to have spent time with them when they were designing and installing our flour mill."

The owl logo on Odlum packs of flour comes from the family crest. The business has seen many changes, but that famous owl logo still looks down from shop shelves everywhere. But the changes have made their mark. In 2007, Shamrock Foods took over Odlums. Then in 2010, Shamrock Foods and Batchelors (the company behind Batchelors' beans) merged to form Valeo Foods - Odlums' current owner.

Earlier this year, Valeo announced a €1m investment in Odlums and this was used to build a state-of-the-art innovation centre - the first major upgrade to Odlums' manufacturing operations in the last 10 years.

"Milling in Ireland has changed hugely in the last 30 years and will keep evolving," says Nigel. "We all have to change with the times. Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."

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