In the countryside outside Dublin, the river Blackwater turns the colossal water wheel of Martry Mill, spinning rumbling cogs and grinding stones that produce flour to feed coronavirus crisis demand.
“We could work 24 hours a day,” said owner James Tallon, 64, the fourth generation in his family to operate the traditional wholemeal mill outside Kells in County Meath, eastern Ireland.
“Even our local supermarkets that maybe sold five cases of flour in a week could now sell 50 cases of flour if we could supply it.”
Ireland has been in lockdown since March 28 and 1,102 people have died after testing positive for COVID-19, according to the latest statistics.
Pent up in their homes, many Irish people have turned to baking to pass the time.
Supermarkets have been regularly stripped of flour, with some enforcing limits on purchases per customer, and producers have been forced to ramp up output.
Rising to the occasion
At the Martry Mill, which dates back to 1641, Tallon and his son are now grinding flour at full capacity for bakeries, supermarkets and shops around County Meath.
The water wheel powers a puzzle of cogs inside the mill, which is filled with the sound of production, the odor of seasoned wood — and a fine white dust.
On the first floor, a steady ribbon of grain is fed between lumbering millstones.
The rough flour falls down a level where it is sifted and then scooped into paper parcels by Tallon’s son, who stands ready in white overalls and a cap.
In this way, the Martry Mill is now producing between 1.0 to 1.5 tonnes of flour each day — more than 500 two-kilogram (4.4-pound) bags.
“Pre the COVID thing, we’d be lucky to do that amount in maybe two weeks,” Tallon told AFP.
He said the situation was reminiscent of stories his father had told him about the mill working continuously during the world wars — tales he had taken with “a pinch of salt” until now.
Larger scale Irish operations like the firm Odlums, which produces a range of 120 baking products from its industrial mill southwest of Dublin are also seeing “unprecedented demand”.
“The dedicated team in our Portarlington mill are working around the clock,” the firm said in a notice to customers.
Meanwhile, social media is awash with users sharing triumphant images of their lockdown baking creations.
‘Life goes in circles’
Tallon has a theory about the popularity of baking in times of crisis.
“Time has become a commodity that people now have that they didn’t have before,” he said. “They were so busy running, chasing, going.
“When they actually stand back and look at life now they realize that home baking, home food, quality food at home, it’s actually much cheaper and it’s actually much better for you.
“There’s much more pleasure to be got from actually making your own bread, and kneading your bread, and baking it in the oven, and the smell that that creates in the house.”
Ireland’s lockdown is due to last until May 5, although many measures are likely to be extended further.
Those sheltering at home can find succor in the small comforts, and perhaps the wisdom of Tallon’s own father, who told him how the good times will always come again.
“He described life as like the water wheel itself,” said Tallon.
“He said life goes in full circles.” NVG
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