The Illegal Bakery
It's an unusual way to arrive at becoming a career baker, I know. Truth is almost always stranger than fiction, though, and this story adds weight to that argument.
This is the story of the illegal bakery - the very, very first one. Well, my very first one anyway. If truth be told, I had probably 3 illegal bakeries before I settled down and became an 'honest' (read 'legal') baker.
But, as Mr Dylan said, if you live outside the law, you gotta be honest. I was always honest.
'Sometimes, something's just gotta be done, and you don't have time to see if there's a rule applyin' to it' - Huckleberry Finn
How I fell into Sourdough
I didn't do a TAFE course. I didn't work in the local bakery after school. My family were not bakers. I didn't have a burning passion for food, or bread, or anything - except perhaps music - and if you asked me at any stage in my childhood if I had considered becoming baker, the answer would have been a most resolute 'what?'
But at some stage in my early twenties, I met a girl with a yeast allergy. She struggled to eat almost anything, especially bread. I started cooking for her, as she couldn't trust cafes and restaurants - there was always some sugar or yeast in the recipe, hidden, but there! Pretty soon I had come across a copy of 'John Downes Natural Tucker Bread book', and I started playing around with home made bread from its recipes. Yeast of any kind was shunned, and John had a whole lot of weapons against this villain of modern civilisation, candida albicans.
Meanwhile, I was learning to make awesome bread. I met some of the bakers at an 'alternative' bakery in Glebe, called 'Demeter Bakery', which made heavy little loves of wonderful wholegrain bread. They illumed in me the beauty of biodynamic grain, as it was freshly milled in their large stone mill, right there, in the middle of Glebe.
For those who are unfamiliar with the geography of Sydney, Glebe is an old inner city suburb, populated I guess during the late 1700's, with, to this day, a fair amount of 'century old' housing stock in evidence everywhere throughout the condensed convict built city blocks.
Demeter was housed in this type of building, with a mixture of high and low tech equipment throughout. Very much dancing to a different drum, I was instantly besotted by the whole message this bakery, flour mill, toyshop, cafe, reading room, book centre and health food store conveyed, and by the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, which it espoused quite openly. And by its quite unique stance within the modern world - curiously in harmony, while at odds with it.
Quite a powerful combination of elements, and one which proved to be influential to a variety of enquiring minds like mine, due to the strong techical sense these guys brought to the baking of bread and the milling of grain.
They also showed me it was possible to survive outside the mainstream, and still make something viable and good. There was a life span, of course, and theirs was until the usefulness of their ideas had been fully shown and partially embraced by the wider world. And like organic fertiliser, they were eventually absorbed and disappeared into the food chain. But their ideas continue to reverberate around the world in Demeter Bakeries and other genuine Artisan bakeries.
In those days (1980's), bread in Australia was square and white and consistent and cheap. Bakeries' typical product ranges were simple and well understood by the punters - the ubiquitous white bread (known as 'white squares', appealingly), wholemeal squares (also appealing, the baker's response to 'health nuts'), vanilla slices, bread rolls, jam rolls, finger buns, tank loaves, and, as well, some fancy bakeries had 'viennas' and 'bread sticks'. This was, of course, pre 'focaccia'; pre 'baguette'; pre 'croissant'; pre 'turkish'.. Oh, and you could buy every bread sliced or unsliced. In paper bags too, usually - though this is probably an older memory than I care to analyse today..
In the 80's, Bakers were still considered 'tradesmen', though they were below pastrycooks in the bakery trade heirarchy. Even then, though, the industry was fully mechanised - medium sized rural bakeries were widely utilising the 'bread plant', which is a fully mechanised bread manufacturing system, deskilling the baker's art and degrading the baker's 'tradesman' status, slowly but relentlessly.
Factory bakeries were also springing up on city outskirts countrywide, gradually replacing the local operators, one by one. Each factory bakery could manufacture twenty 'local' bakeries' output of white squares, for a fraction of the labour cost. Bakeries suddenly became a capital investment, rather than a business, and the baker's craft was rapidly disappearing. And those who ate the bread didn't seem to mind at all.
Bakers actually used the term 'Sour Dough', at least in Australian bakeries anyway, to classify dough that had passed its prime. This dough could be 'put through' other doughs to add a bit of 'strength' to them.Obviously, this is not what the rest of the world came to know as sourdough!
Logically, the words 'sour' and 'dough' didn't instantly translate to mean something which was a delicious thing to eat. I was selling my own sourdough bread as 'naturally leavened', and 'containing no refined yeast' - both of which descriptions were true. I thought these terms were better than 'sourdough', which is almost derogatory to the product.
Despite my thoughts on the matter, the 'derogatory' name stuck. And so did the type of bread. People fell in love with the flavour, and still do. Nobody these days would have the faintest idea what the words 'naturally leavened' meant. And, while I fought (initially) to avoid the 'sour' taste in my bread, it eventually charmed me - that lactic fermentation flavour, familiar to regular sourdough bread eaters, just speaks 'real bread' to me now - so much so that plain yeasted bread simply annoys me, and my digestive system. I sound like a bread snob, I know. But when you have diamonds, why would you settle for glass?
So here I was making great bread at home, and everybody who tasted it wanted some of their own. It didn't take long to realise there was a huge untapped discontent with the ubiquitous 'white squares'. I could replace that discontent with sheer and unmitigated joy! The question was, did I really want to?
The answer to that question must have been 'yes', because I pretty much gave over 100% to the sourdough baker's life for the next fifteen years.
The first Illegal Bakery
So I fell into becoming a baker by accident. My first illegal bakery was a flat in Waverly where Vanessa (my then wife, and mother of nearly all my kids, and co conspirator in the first four or five bakeries) and I lived, while hatching our first daughter.
Our little kitchen in Waverley distantly overlooked Bronte Beach, and the pacific ocean framed our lives. I gradually filled that little kitchen up with Pyrex bowls (At the time I thought bread tins were so last century!) full of Sunflower bread, Linseed bread, and Millet bread. My obsession was beginning to take over - the tiny domestic oven I renovated as best I could, with oven tiles on the floor and new rubber seals around the door, but it was still the worst oven, no matter what I did to improve it.
I was working at a health food store in Bondi Junction, Macro Wholefoods, packing organic brown rice and ringing farmers and agents every day, sourcing organic products to fill the health food store's customers' orders.
I decided to bring some of my bread to work one day - and remember this is a store that employed wholemeal bread freaks - and they LOVED it!
Pretty soon all the staff at the shop were placing orders for my naturally leavened bread every week. I made more money on Wednesdays selling bread to staff than I made all day working for these guys!
The problem was my little oven couldn't cope with more than a dozen loaves in a sitting.
A friend, Jurek, arrived from up the coast, and happened on a flat in the same apartment building (actually an old house with lots of rooms made into flats) as ours. He had worked in a couple of 'alternative' bakeries around the place, and expressed an interest in helping my little enterprise. Even better, the oven in his flat was bigger and better than mine. I said' let's do it', shook hands and that was it. We were in the bakery business. So our second illegal bakery was born!
Paddington Markets - mobile merchandising
We started taking a few trays of 'organic naturally leavened' bread to Paddington Markets each Saturday morning. We would sell everything we could bake almost straight away every week. Over a few months, we increased our dual kitchen capacity to about a hundred loaves in a session (no mixers, all by hand, and baked in two small domestic ovens, while running up and down stairs with delicately balanced bowls of ripening dough balanced in both arms on metal trays!
Our merchandising consisted of each of the three of us carrying around the market a display of bread on these makeshift wooden trays we recycled from the local fruit shop. Each tray would hold about a dozen loaves. We three would descend upon Paddington markets first thing on Saturday morning with the trays. In the back of the car we would have a stock of about a hundred loaves of freashly baked bread, which we had worked through the night to make. We would regroup at the car to reload with more bread, and leave when it was all sold. This process would take about an hour or two.
So, our illegal bakery, selling illegally at Paddington markets. The security staff at the markets used to chase us between council boundaries - the markets administration controlled all the food through the markets, and it was pretty difficult to get a stall there at the best of times. Our 'mobile merchandising' approach allowed us to retail in kamakaze style, escaping the grip of the various authorities every Saturday.
Our pockets were full of cash, and our heads full of new recipes - just waiting to see the light of day.
To be continued....
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Follow the links below for the back side of this baking obsession...