In our haste to stockpile toilet rolls, tinned tomatoes, and pasta at the start of the lockdown, many overlooked the supply of flour. The cinderella of the baking world, it disappeared fast from supermarkets. The bags that did gradually filter through were usually organic and massively over-priced.
While there was actually enough flour being produced to go round, it was the bags in which it was packed that contributed to the problem, and the fact that far more people were baking due to being stuck at home. Interestingly, scones were the most googled recipe during lockdown - we just didn't have enough flour to make them.
At the peak of demand, up to 4 million bags were produced weekly, but the output was limited by the capacity to pack enough small bags for consumers. As supplies of commercial flour are delivered either in larger sacks or tankers, food manufacturers and bakeries were not affected. In the later stages of the lockdown, larger supermarkets resorted to stocking bulk bags of flour to satisfy the unprecedented demand. Anyone lucky enough to live near a mill could join a queue or a waiting list, and some restaurants and bakeries enterprisingly repackaged their large sacks for sale direct to the general public.
In order to make the small amount of flour that I had bought prior to lockdown go further, I experimented with a food replacement powder called Huel. It mostly looks and feels like flour, albeit slightly more gritty, so you can kid yourself it actually is. I substituted 25% of the flour in a basic cake recipe with it, but unsurprisingly it doesn't behave in the same way at all. Cakes did not rise (even with extra baking powder), dipped dramatically in the middle and had a dense, cloying texture. Even reducing the ratio of Huel gave disappointing results and affected the whole balance of the cake.
Yes, you can bake flourless cakes, with ingredients such as ground almonds and polenta, but I'm a fan of old-fashioned classics like lemon drizzle and madeira. In the end, home baking had to go on hold and sub-standard shop-bought treats had to suffice.
The lack of flour throughout this period made me reflect on the difficulties and frustrations of living with rationing and the non-availability of many ingredients during war-time. Even if you can diversify and think outside the box, there isn't always a worthy replacement. It's so easy nowadays to lose our appreciation of basic store cupboard ingredients. Even eggs were hard to obtain just a few weeks ago and my local supermarkets would only sell a box of six at one time. Flour is now back on the shelves in its familiar 1kg bags, at the reasonable pre-virus price, but its value is far, far greater.