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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis