Chocolate straw cake joins reformer's menu for a cereal thriller: Cherrill Hicks meets a man with ideas for using the whole crop

Arthur Staniforth has acquired an unusual recipe for chocolate sponge cake. Developed by American researchers, it replaces almost a third of the wheat flour normally used in baking with straw which has been treated chemically, and then ground into pure cellulose fibre.

Straw-based chocolate cake is just one of the items which Mr Staniforth, a former adviser with the Ministry of Agriculture, has come across in his world-wide quest for alternatives to burning straw in the field.

His report on the use of cereal straw, published this month, is timely: this year is the last in which British farmers will be allowed to set light to straw and stubble after harvesting. From 1993, under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the practice will be outlawed.

The chocolate cake recipe is not yet available commercially. But baked products which substituted treated straw for flour would contain fewer calories and more fibre than normal, Mr Staniforth said; and the American research has found the cakes to be 'highly acceptable' to the taste buds.

The government ban on straw burning will be popular with a public increasingly fed up with smoke-filled roads and gardens, and the destruction of wildlife. But it has left British farmers - who produce 14 million tonnes of straw annually - with a big problem.

In the West, where farms are still mixed, straw is still needed for livestock bedding and feed; but in the 'cereal monoculture' of eastern counties, at least half of all the straw produced has until recently been burnt.

Ploughing the straw back into the soil instead is one option available to farmers. But this can still be difficult in the heavy clay-based soils of eastern England. And at between pounds 70- pounds 100 per hectare it is also expensive.

Which is where Mr Staniforth, 71, comes in. A specialist in straw use for the last 20 years, he developed a passion for the stuff during a boyhood spent on a wheat and bean farm in Suffolk, in the days when all the crop was harvested. 'People never thought of burning it in those days. The whole crop was cut and stacked in the stackyard. I don't suppose you've ever slept on a straw stack. But I have and it's lovely. Very springy and comfortable.'

A small amount of straw is used for traditional crafts, for roof thatch, and as mulch for apple trees and strawberry plants. But its potential is far greater.

In the Austrian town of Hollabrunn, straw-fired ovens are being used to cook 36,000 tonnes of frozen chips annually, while in Denmark more than 50 towns have their central heating supplied by straw-fired boilers.

Straw's traditional use as a building material is also being revived: in France, near Lyons, it has been mixed with earth to build a whole village of experimental housing. It can make good quality particle board and paper: a pilot project at the St Regis paper plant in Gwent, South Wales, and partly funded by the European Community, could if successful dispose of 50,000 tonnes of straw annually.

Mr Staniforth says straw is environmentally sound. Researchers from the Agricultural Research Council have found that it can reduce the spread of poisonous algae in reservoirs and canals; while a wildfowl centre at Great Linford, Buckinghamshire, is using straw to enrich the beds of artificial lakes, encouraging plant and animal life. Large- scale straw matting is being developed by an Isle of Wight farmer to protect coastlines from oil spillages.

Straw-based compost could also become a valuable substitute for the peat. At the waste water works at Little Marlow, near Mr Staniforth's Oxford home, treated human sewage is being mixed with straw to make manure for winter barley, rye and grass. 'It just seems common sense to make manure with human sewage and straw, rather than dumping the stuff out at sea on the one hand and sending it up in smoke on the other,' Mr Staniforth said.

He concedes that as a fuel, straw has only half the energy of coal and its bulkiness makes it expensive to move around. But he says that by using a special compressing machine, straw bales can be squashed to half their bulk, making them cheaper to transport. At a time when grain prices are slipping, he believes British farmers could be persuaded to bale their straw rather than plough it in - as long as they were paid adequately.

In Mr Staniforth's summerhouse are examples of sundry other possibilities: straw firelighters developed by a farmer in Essex, firelogs from Hungary, and more traditional artefacts, including 'envelopes' for bottles and elegant straw birds known as finials.

Mr Staniforth recalls sleeping on a straw 'biscuit' during the war. It was a mattress of three squares laid end to end which could be packed neatly away and was 'exceedingly comfortable'.

Research on the Use of Cereal Straw by A R Staniforth. The Home-Grown Cereals Authority, Hamlyn House, Highgate Hill, London N19 5PR; pounds 15 inc p&p.

(Photograph omitted)

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