Sunday, February 1, 2015

Heat dynamics

Finally, I'm starting to understand heat dynamics. It's taken me at least 5 years, and there are still lots of things that don't make sense. And, as usual, just when I think I have it sorted, something pops out of the metalwork to show me that I don't.

For this reason, I am going to try to explain heat dynamics to you - kinda like a brain dump, so that I can nail what I know down for a bit. So this has nothing to do with  education - and everything to do with maintaining some degree of sanity. 

More art than science
Heat, as they say, is more art than science.  Art has a way of messing with one's mind, for the sake of anyone who has ever brushed up against said beast (art - not a hot oven). 

Heat is heat - plain and simple - only it behaves in unexpected ways. This can be quite a problem if, like me, you are untrained in the principles if heat exchange and wish to build an oven or three. 

The thermal engineers, in their semi scientific way, classify heat according to how it moves - conduction, convection and radiance. Physical transfer, gas transfer and heat emission. This last one  is when something fills up with heat and passes it out. The other three are fairly self explanatory.

I find these pieces of information as useless as teats on a bull, in practical terms. And kinda stupid, as they tend to overlap - radiant is both conductive and convective, or one, or the other - in the real world, at least. Particularly to a lump of dough, who wouldn't know the difference anyway. 

For the sake of a workable analogy, though, let's stick with the lump of dough for a minute, to explain a certain type of insulation principle.

Edible insulation?
Imagine you are a nice, ripe lump of dough, and the baker dumps you on the hot stone floor of his woodfired oven. Instantly, conductive heat finds it's way into you through the stones. Soon after,  you feel the heat all around you, convectively. All of this heat is being radiated via the hot stones. But in spite of all this absorption, your surface would be only warm to touch.

Your gluten bubbles are forced to expand quite rapidly, as the last bit of fermentation energy from the ripening process (proofing, in baker's jargon)  gives off carbon dioxide as a result of all this heat. You suddenly grow as you absorb all the heat. After a while, you solidify. You would now be quite hot to touch, as anyone who handles crusty hot bread straight out of the oven would be happy to testify. 

The baker flips you out if his oven onto the cold steel bench. You take your heat with you, and it passes into the bench via conduction. 

You have become a kind of edible insulator, and, inadvertently, a heat transfer device. The convective heat is now in your carbon dioxide bubbles, which are, in this case, made of gluten. They filled up quite rapidly (due to their gassy nature) with heat energy. After you are baked, this heat energy passes out of you gradually into the atmosphere - convectively, as it happens. And, while you are still hot, you have become a radiant heat source. And the bench you are sitting on is instantly hot, as conductive heat energy has made it so. It feels hot because it is quite dense, and instantly reflects this heat. 

Light and Water all rolled into one
The thing is, heat is both like light and like water. It reflects instantly when it comes up against a dense substance (like steel or brick), but then, slowly, these things absorb it. 

When heat comes up against a substance like bubbles, or something filled with gas, it is absorbed first, until it is the substance is full, and then the substance reflects the heat. 

So things with a lot of gas or air in them absorb heat first.  Then they fill up with it. Then they reflect it. And then the heat passes out if them quite quickly. 

Things with very little gas or air, (dense things), reflect heat first, then, via conduction, they fill up with it. When they are full, they too pass the heat out, but more slowly. 

So dense things become a good radiant heat source over time, whereas light, airy things don't. 

Up to this point you can see that heat is like water. Spongy substances soak up heat, while solid substances cause heat to bounce off. Like washing the car - the sponge absorbs water, while the steel bonnet bounces it off. 

But heat is also part of light energy. So a dense, dark coloured substance will tend to absorb heat - or even, I suppose, a substance that is in the dark (though I'm only guessing, as it was in the dark and I didn't see it).  Similarly, I light coloured substances will tend to reflect heat. But this is all theoretical at this point, because the heat spectrum we are in doesn't involve much in the way of light. 

All of these principles come into play in my world all the time as a baker, a Fournier, and as an oven designer. It's only recently that I feel I have achieved some sort of mastery over them - enough, at least, to control a woodfired oven when baking for long enough to make a couple of hundred good quality loaves if bread. 

And, of course, to design a woodfired oven that actually works reasonably well. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The bakery out the back of a bar

How time flies! Before I even get a chance to write about it, we've moved on!
(I guess this post is being written to fill a gap in the published life of SourdoughBaker, which I hadn't got around to filling...)

Best lookin' legs on the ward...
In my previous post, I mentioned that I'd be writing about life at the Croatian Wickham Sports Club. Seems the time is ripe. 

Some months ago, I found myself with time on my hands, convalescing after a fairly inconvenient motor car crash which left me with a number of broken bones, and about 16 weeks on crutches. And another 8 weeks where I got around the farm like Dr House and his walking stick - very slowly with lots of pain. 

So there was a bit of time available for writing. This story came from that time - and it's been sitting here waiting for me to finish it. Here goes! 

Out the back of the bar

Baking from the back of a bar, as I had been doing prior to the accident, came to an abrupt end - and stayed that way, while my bones grew back slowly. 

Being our the back of the Croatian Club for ten months was kind of romantic in a way - I baked out in the elements, firing up Bertha in the wee small hours so that she would be hot enough to have baked some bread in time for the customers at 8am. 

The elements, amazingly, were very kind for most of that time. I think in ten months it rained about four or five times, and only once did it rain heavily. In spring, however, we had some unseasonally hot weather, which had everyone on high alert due to local bushfires. During this time, I kept firings to a minimum, which wasn't great for supplying customers with their bread.
The bakery routine

My weekly routine was simple and fairly time effective. Tuesdays, pre ferments were made for all the doughs. These would then be built into dough, cut and proofed a number of times over the following days, ready to be baked on a Friday. 

Building pre ferments would only take a couple of hours, leaving me time to catch up on other chores later in the day - which more often than not meant deep cleaning the stuff that didn't get cleaned every other day. In the Croatian Club's kitchen, deep cleaning was always necessary. 

Those of you with a romantic vision of starting your own bakery should at this point take on board the simple truth that you will be spending about half your time cleaning. And not just the daily cleaning either - I'm talking about cleaning down the insides and behinds of things like ovens, fireboxes, fridges, proofers, dough containers, mixers, roofs, light fixtures, walls, under benches, around hotplates and so forth. This is really taxing work, causing you to bend and twist into all sorts of unnatural positions while getting covered in all sorts of unnatural stuff. 

Having a one person enterprise, without employees at all, means you get to do all this yourself. These jobs are usually left to the apprentice in a proper kitchen! (I would tell myself all the while that I was saving wages...)

The Club's kitchen was open to all patrons for self catered events - and thus, required professional standard cleaning on a more than regular basis. Intoxicated 'caterers' were the norm - there was almost always an unholy mess left for me to deal with. Why me? Well,the Croatians refused to take rent from me - God love 'em. So cleaning up was a kind of unwritten trade off. At times, though, I think it would have just been easier to pay rent. 

Wednesdays and Thursdays were all about making dough, and doing what we call tablework. This involved cutting the ripened dough into many pieces, rounding them, and allowing them to proof for the second time, so they could then be moulded into shape for the following days' bake. Finally, Thursday was the day for cleaning out the firebox and firing up Bertha. 

Bertha had about two tonnes of brick in her belly, as well as cement and sand. To get all that thermal mass hot took a fair bit of firing. Ideally, I would begin this process by lunch time, and keep it burning brightly till I went home. In the evening, when we lived locally, I would return to top up the fire and wind it all down so it would trickle along till the morning. When we moved to Tipperary farm, I would enlist the services of one of the club's customers, for the price of a beer or two, to do the job. I would then drive home to rest for Friday's early start. 

Delegation of the fire tending was not always a reliable solution, however, as the club is in the business of selling alcohol, and the more the customers drunk, the less likely they were to remember to stoke the fire correctly. Many a Friday morning I would arrive to a forgotten fire. On the other hand, I would occasionally arrive to a hot oven, complete with drunken fire stoker, having stayed by the oven all night, diligently stoking, while keeping hydrated with beer (from the bottle shop - the club closed at 9pm... or so I was told) 

If there was any defining feature of my stay in Wickham's Croatia, it was the unpredictability of life out the back. Every baking day presented it's own set of issues - whether it was just the state the kitchen was left in, or whether the oven had been tended to overnight, or if my makeshift shelter had been blown away in the night. I grew quite adept at dealing with the unexpected. 

The club's grounds joined a large oval and park, and on the other side of my spot there was the Fig Tree Community Garden. I was regularly visited by 'sleeping rough' folks who either lived in the park or somewhere in the garden.

Breakfast for them consisted of toast and coffee, if I had some bread to toast at the time they visited. They would reward me by running errands to Beaumont Street to pick up supplies for me. Or by bringing me stuff they had found. Or by tending Bertha's fire at night - which had the added fringe benefit of keeping them warm. 

Occasionally I would be treated to a wildlife 'show and tell' from Kirby, a long term resident of the surrounding area, who was on a first name basis with all the stray dogs and bluetongue lizards in the garden. Over time, Kirby became a firm friend. It became necessary to look out for each other in the never ending political miasma that was the Croatian Club - but that's another story altogether, and one which will not be told until I am living far, far away... 

Friday was the first bake of the week. My baking day began at 5am, when I would arrive to get more fire into Bertha's belly. On a good day, this was a simple matter, and I could get on with preparing the pre proofed doughs for the oven. On other days this involved some serious attention, though more often than not I could resurrect the fire within fifteen minutes. 

As a result of Thursday's preparations, I would have quite a bit of bread almost ready to bake when I arrived - all I needed to do was to tray it up onto wooden boards and warm it up a bit - known as 'final proofing'. 

Once the oven was hot, which took about two hours, I would put the first load in. Bertha could handle about forty eight loaves at a time.

Depending on how hot the oven was, this could take between forty minutes and two and a half hours to bake. All in all I would bake about 100 loaves, which on average I finished at about ten am. When all the baking was done I would get stuck into cutting dough for the next day, and getting it ready for moulding. 

By the end of Friday, I would have two or three fridges choc a bloc with dough, either 'rough rounded' for shaping on Saturday morning, or if there was room in the fridge I would shape some and store it cold for baking first thing Saturday morning. And of course, as a result of having run the oven for two days straight, I would also have a nice hot oven, all the way through. 

A welcome bi product of a lot of hot brick is that it can be used to produce organic coal - which is my term for unsold bread which has been reduced in the hot decks to something resembling coal. I've mentioned this before in this blog - but at the Croatian Club, organic coal really came into its own. The sheer unpredictability of the Friday business often left me with plenty of unsold bread. So by putting this back through the hot decks, using waste heat, I was able to power the oven for the next day, thereby reducing the amount of wood needed for fuel significantly.

Saturday was my favourite day of the week - mainly because it involved doing nothing much else but baking - although the necessity to begin at 4 am was a minor drawback. 

I would usually arrive to a fairly warm firebox, which would then be loaded with wood or organic coal and made to blaze brightly for an hour or two. By this time, I would have placed much of the 'retarded' moulded dough from the fridge onto wooden boards, ready to be loaded with my peel into the hot baking chambers of Bertha. In that first hour or so, my proofing cupboard, made of a large metal box with a slow cooker filled with water, would be filled with cold dough, to be ripened in the warmth and transferred to the oven for baking. 

First customers would usually begin arriving by seven am, and if I had run things well, there would be bread out of the oven, hot and fresh. The trick was to keep up with demand - it was like a race against the customers, with Bertha requiring constant fuel to keep the heat high for baking quickly. By mid morning, Bertha would be beginning to cool a bit, with 150 or more loaves being passed in and out of her since the early morning. 

Bertha was basically a good, but slow oven. Especially when I compare her to my new oven, Luna. But at the time, I thought Bertha was the ducks guts. Now that we have learned so much about fireboxes, the plan is to take Bertha back to Bathurst to rebuild her so she functions better in the real world. I'm very much looking forward to this - but I'm not looking forward to moving her from her spot out the back of the Croatian Club, where she sits to this day.

My daughter Rosa would help me on Saturdays, and this was very much a fun day for both of us, as our regulars made it a social affair. This was amplified by visits from our dishpig volunteer, Mark, who helped in the kitchen, as well as a never ending parade of friends, rough sleepers and general club helpers, who would all pop in for a bit of toast and coffee. By midday, it was pretty much all over, and we would be packing the outdoor shop away for another week.

The more time passes, the stranger those times feel. I do miss the place, but my psyche doesn't. There was something about the Croatian Club which lent itself to a permanent state of impermanence. I guess that's my lot.       

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sourdoughbaker goes bush!

It's about 5.30am, and I've had one of those nights. Daylight Saving Time has just started, and I'm looking out at a pre dawn mist which has settled over the paddock in front of me. Pretty soon the mist will start to thin out, as the warmth from the sun vaporises it. There are cattle about three paddocks away, black shadows through the creamy mist.

 It stormed last night - a wild, crazy electrical extravaganza which delivered Ginnie, Elke, Ruby and I unparalleled excitement as we all experienced it from different vantage points. Ginnie and I sat on the side verandah and watched, transfixed. The girls were mostly in their beds, wide awake, amazed by the random flashes of blinding light as bright as day, wrapped up in rolling thunder. From the verandah, we could see exactly where the storm was coming from, and hear where the thunder was. We could feel the rain just brushing against our skin from the relative safety of the corrugated iron roof which covers the verandah. We could feel the wind coming from the east and the south in mad gusts.
Back in downtown Islington, where we lived till only ten weeks ago, such a storm would have amounted to a smidgin of excitement and a possible power outage. We could not have watched it in a kind of visceral panavision like we did last night, nor could we have felt the elemental forces on our skin, or been as engaged with the event as entirely as we were here in upcountry Quorrobolong.

Everything here is a treat for the senses - the briskness of the mornings as the mist moves on to be replaced with stinging sunshine; the dry heat of the day, and the sunsets over the back verandah. Watching and hearing a community of birds, bees, cattle and kangaroos do their thing at any given moment. Smelling the grass and the cowshit and the eucalyptus oil all mingled in the air to create that quintessential 'country' smell.

The SourdoughBaker Goes Bush...
So what happened to the village baker? For one so attached to city life in Newcastle, how did I manage to find myself in such a geographically, climatically and culturally different world so quickly?

I guess I need to fill in a few gaps for you.

As you know, I do bread. And woodfired ovens. And I teach how to make this bread. And up until recently, I also did cafes. And I try to keep some kind of record of it all through this blog, and my website - infrequently, I admit.

In the process of doing these things, I find it inevitable that I either engage with the community, or a community unfolds and engages with me. I'm not sure if that's an 'either' or an 'and' situation - but it has become a theme anyway.

Community Enterprises have their drawbacks
I've run my businesses as 'community enterprises' for years. When we were at Wesley Mission, we did quite a few things which richly engaged with the community on various levels - markets in the laneway, community gardens, music nights, a book exchange, a community meeting space, weddings, parties and anything else we could get away with. When our woodfired oven was finally built and installed, we even planned to have community bake ins using the stored heat from baking. I've spoken about some of these things here in the past.
In the end, though, Wesley's Sydney based management tended to frown upon these things, and we would get the message through various channels that what we were doing was in some way upsetting the applecart.  As a result, these community building exercises were not good for our business - purely because Wesley Mission saw them as a risk.

The biggest risk of all was, in the end, Bertha, the woodfired oven. Once she was up and running, Wesley Mission's 'management team' terminated our licence agreement with four hours' notice. Why? They sited the aforementioned 'risk to volunteers' as the reason, as well as a 'breakdown of trust' - apparently I directly disobeyed a staff member by firing her up.

Asking me not to fire up an oven which I have been working on designing and building for over three years is a bit like asking a river not to flow. Or, more succinctly, a bushfire not to burn. It just won't.

A note on Bertha 2
If you would like to know more about the story of Bertha, there is plenty written and linked here. But without following all that, in a nutshell, she has been the obsession of Craig Miller and myself for the past three and a bit years. We wanted to design a high quality, high efficiency, clean woodfired baker's oven for the twenty first century. We wanted it to be the backbone of the village bakery. We wanted it to be off the grid, clean and green, and a delight for a baker to work. I have longed for an oven like this for many years, but could never afford anything like it - so I figured I would just have to let that idea go. When I met Craig and realised he was just as passionate about making woodfired ovens as I was about baking bread, I immediately asked him if he was up for a collaborative partnership to create such a beast. Craig, being cut from the same cloth as me, took about a split second to decide. Of course he was.

 And when I was asked to move my bakery to Wesley Mission by the then general manager, Greg Colby, my first question was: 'Can I put my new woodfired oven there when it's built? It's pretty huge.' The answer from Greg was an emphatic 'Of course. We will find a way.' By the time Bertha 2 was nearing completion, Greg was unceremoniously dumped by the Wesley Mission Management Team. I was then informed by them that I would need permission to do what I already had permission to do.   

The folks that protect Wesley Mission's property interests, after Bertha 2 had been commissioned, built and delivered, told me that Bertha would have to go, within days. I fired her up a dozen times in those days to no ill effect whatsoever - I needed to learn about her emissions, her flaws, and also how to actually bake with her. Yes, there were issues - but I had a small team of passionate designers and builders and even engineers ready to work with me on them. Despite this, Wesley Mission's property manager asked me: 'Which part of 'Get It Out' don't you understand?' 

Keep your head down
As anyone who has lived in Newcastle for a while knows, those who hold the power do what they do for various reasons, and the rest of us can only look on and hope that we get dealt some decent cards somewhere along the way.

And if we wish to be dealt any cards at all, it is better to keep one's head down. Do what you are told, and don't upset the applecart.

As many of my long suffering friends and family will verify, I am singularly not good at keeping my head down. And if you let an actual community have its head, as we did at Denison Street, it certainly won't keep 'it' down. This was evidenced when we were removed from the Wesley Mission premises - the community response was so strong that it crashed their website for two days.

So what happened to the vision?

Communities tend to take ownership of my enterprises - and I have encouraged that. I guess fundamentally I don't feel as though I own them, but merely convene their existence.

I put it down to being a punk in another life.

Allow me to elaborate - I found myself in a vibrant 'punk' community in Sydney during the early to mid 1980's.  We weren't punks in the fashion sense - it was more of an attitude, a way of 'doing life'. It meant that you engaged with anarchism - there were no masters and no slaves in the punk universe.

In my case, this proved to be a happy and creative way of living. Much was achieved with very little, including things like Radio Skid Row, a community radio station founded at that time, and which, I understand, still exists. We just did what we could with what we had - which wasn't much. But we did it together, and it worked famously well.

That period in Australia's history, and my experience within it, has profoundly influenced me. I unconsciously adapted our punk/anarchist protocols to suit various endeavours ever since - with mixed results.

The ethos has always been about doing what you think needs to be done, and doing it independently, with like minded individuals. A kind of collaborative, organic, slow cooked process - involving a fair bit of labour (much of it your own) and not much capital.

That was up until recently. I no longer subscribe to that universal methodology. Well, not so much, anyway. What has transpired over the years of reflection on those times is that sometimes, circumstances and events bring people together for a particular reason.
But you need the environment in the first place.
In the 80's, there was a confluence of things that made the energy occur - run down real estate in the inner city and thus cheap rent, a nascent  independent street media, the granting of community radio licenses, changing laws in pubs, a distant movement involving youth and so on overseas, a corrupt and entrenched state government with a subservient media, and a generally relaxed and therefore unprepared state of mind amongst the powers that be. These and other preconditions gave rise to the supremely creative explosion that was the inner city punk movement I've mentioned here. Those sorts of preconditions are rare - and nothing like them exist now.

These days efficiency, subservience and capital have well and truly triumphed over creativity, anarchy and ingenuity.

We all like things to work, a vision to succeed. People committed money and time to my vision, but it has taken a lot more time than other people actually had to realise any of its potential.

The reality is, the vision of a community enterprise, owned and run by the community, didn't work - practically or commercially.

The environment where the community enterprise was to be housed  - the place where the cafe could unfold organically -  needed to be owned by a not for profit protector. I believed this protector was Wesley Mission, but this was an illusion. Wesley Mission was simply in the business of gathering or maintaining resources, taking a cut, and choosing where those resources are to be allocated. Just like any other landlord is. They had zero interest in forming actual community partnerships. They did, however gain mileage in a PR sense by being seen to form them.

And what about the kids that worked with us? In the end, I attracted young people who just wanted to work at a cool place, with other cool people. They didn't really care about the vision. And they wanted above award conditions and pay rates, sick pay and superannuation. A nice resume entry and a decent reference, of course.

I tried to satisfy these things, in order to continue this vision - but it was an experiment that didn't work on an enterprise level. I think on a human level, it was a fabulous success, with people realising things about themselves, and about their environment, that were possible. And some of those people will go on to do great things.

Despite these small successes, I personally still have had to pay everyone back in hard cash; starting with the suppliers, then the investors who needed it, and grudgingly, the landlord from hunter street who bamboozled me with legal and illegal bullshit. I'll be paying everyone back for many years, I'm sure. If you need something from me and you feel I owe it to you, join the queue. If I'm still alive by the time it's your turn, I'll do my best to make sure your little bit has come back to you. Honestly. But if you want it yesterday, sorry. It's a work in progress.

So I guess the vision has had to be adjusted to reality a bit. It's still there, but I'm having to redefine 'community' - and how I interact with it.

What actually worked?
Okay - so much for the vision thing - collaboration, like minded souls, no masters and so on. Sometimes, sharing the vision is not entirely necessary. One just needs willing helpers. The back story of how we got the cafe open at the Wesley Mission in Denison street is a case in point. My vision, at that time, had taken a beating, and I was one stop short of becoming all bitter and twisted.
That was when I met Ginnie. Everyone else had abandoned me - my staff, even my family were holding me at arm's length - and understandably so - they too had invested in my vision, which seemed to have collapsed at the time. I had been gutted by closing Hunter Street, financially and personally. I was emotionally numb, because I had no option but to continue as best I could. So I was baking 'by subscription', and actually managing to keep my head above water in doing so (thanks in no small part to Greg Colby, who really did what he could to keep things afloat in difficult circumstances).
Then Ginnie pitched in, and gave me a hand - as did my youngest daughter Rosa, and Ginnie's two very young daughters. Between us we got the place refurbished and ready to become a cafe. And Ginnie has been there with me ever since.

I have learned that having a vision means owning it yourself - and if a few people can really commit to it, and evolve it with you, it has a better chance of succeeding.

Whatever happened to Sourdough Cafe?
Sourdough Cafe no longer exists. But the Sourdough still does.
These days, Bertha II and I are parked out the back of the Croatian Sports Club in Wickham. I begin to fire her up on Thursdays to bake fresh sourdough bread for everyone on Fridays and Saturdays. I make enough bread for our loyal customers - there are no orders, no coffee machine, no staff, and no sandwich press. Just bread.

The Croatian Club took us in when Wesley Mission kicked us out. We had no money to afford more salubrious digs at that time - frankly, it was a relief to have a home so quickly. 

We immediately got the bakery resurrected so that we could create some cashflow to live on. Our plan was to build a cafe in an empty container adjacent to the FigTree Community Garden, and utilise the produce grown there in the food.
It was to be a Garden Cafe, demonstrating how seasonality, community and locality could work together to make a place where nourishment happens. Our enthusiasm for the idea of a cafe which utilised produce grown onsite carried us forward - and Ginnie started preparations for this while I got the bakehouse running.

But as we went along, it became clear that building a cafe in a container was more expensive and difficult than we had thought. A number of issues arose when planning the space - power, fire safety, water and so on. We also discovered that there were fundamental zoning issues associated with putting a cafe on the site. The more we looked into it, the harder it all became to actually do. Not just a bit hard - it was actually very hard, and it seemed as though there could be no shortcuts or workarounds. And, we discovered, there would be no lease - which was the reason our downfall  was so swift at Wesley Mission.

After a couple of months of false starts and frustration, Ginnie and I walked away from Sourdough Garden Cafe altogether. It was hard enough losing the cafe once - but even harder trying to create another one from scratch with nothing but goodwill - to find we had no security of tenure either. We just didn't have the energy to deal with all the issues.

Meanwhile, the bakery was finding its feet as a stand alone enterprise for the first time ever! I had no staff, no expectations of retail convenience from my customers, and no food or coffee to prepare. My loyal customers were coming each week to buy bread, and they were telling their friends where to find me. This meant that I could focus completely on baking with my woodfired oven. I realised that in two and a half decades of bakery life, I had always had a cafe to attend to. For once, the weight of coffee and food lifted from my shoulders, and I felt free and partly re-energised.

The bread became front and center. And it has improved enormously - helped by Bertha's mighty thermal mass, of course!

(Life at the Croatian Club is a whole other story, of course - and one that is brewing. But stay tuned for that one!)

And now, to the farm...and the family
After both the cafe and it's stalled remake were gone from our lives, Ginnie and I had to do some soul searching. Especially Ginnie - her life as a chef has extended for over two decades and two countries now. I don't think even she could tell you how many kitchens she has run or worked in.
Quite suddenly, she had her long term mainstay in the working world was removed. Like me, she couldn't just go and work somewhere else - being a chef was meaningless on its own  - creating food has to have meaning beyond the workaday world for her to be able to continue doing it. For both of us, and the children in both our families, our next step had to replace the place that Sourdough Cafe had occupied in our collective psyche, and to re-energise our souls, which had been battered as a result of all this. There had to be a truly compelling vision in order for some sort of collective healing and regeneration to take place.

We started to take some drives to the country, just to have a look around, and to clear our heads a bit. After a couple of journeys, Ginnie came across an ad online for a farm to let in Quorrobolong.
Neither of us knew where Quorrobolong was - and with a name that you have to say the same way when you are drunk as when you are sober, it had to be worth a look.

So we took a drive south, and 50 minutes later we were looking at a sign on a locked gate - 'Tipperary'. We jumped over, and walked down the blossom lined driveway. We looked at each other, both gobsmacked at the sheer beauty of this place.
Then we had a bit of a squiz at the infrastructure - a house, a barn, a swimming pool, a machinery shed, park like surrounds and an outlook that was completely uncluttered. The cows in the paddock wandered up to say hello, and we both instantly knew that this place was where we needed to be to continue on our journey together.

Since that day three months ago, we have relocated our little family here, and created a display kitchen in the barn, specifically for teaching. We've installed a small woodfired oven, and we've held our first of the new series of Sourdough 101 Workshops from the display kitchen. As the fourth venue for these workshops, this one is by far the best.

Our students were completely blown away by the surroundings.  And they got something more than a casual learning encounter - they got something of our lives, our passions. And they got Ginnie's food. Yes, it is very special!

Are we there yet?
Tipperary farm has offered us the opportunity to reinvent what we do around teaching, baking, farming and learning to live in a different way - connected to the earth and to the seasons and to the community. Our shared vision incorporates both the Village Bakery and the idea of working ecologically and sustainably with food and the resources it takes to grow and prepare it.

Ginnie plans to incorporate a series of special cooking workshops into the repertoire early next year, and to grow some of our own produce as well.
I am going to continue to bake, build better, super efficient woodfired ovens with Craig Miller, as well as to extend my workshops into new areas. We both want to make this place a model of what you can do to truly get 'off the grid'. We wish to engage meaningfully with local producers, and to demonstrate humane and sustainable animal husbandry practices. We want to do it all ourselves, and with like minded helpers - just like I did in the early days of the Sydney Punk scene.

We've called this new venture 'The Chef and the Baker'. Like us on facebook to keep up to date with specific happenings and news of how the place is progressing.

Making stuff is always a creative process - and in the bush, creativity is all around. It just happens in a different way to the city. Here, our shared vision is one where that process can continue for Ginnie, both of our batches of kids, and me.

The way I see it, Tipperary Farm has been a bit of a gift from the Gods of Hard Work - a kind of reward and a responsibility both at once. I'm good with that.

Check out our new series of workshops for the rest of the year. And make yourself known at the Croatian Club while Bertha and I are still there.

Oh, and did I mention? The bakery is going mobile very soon.     



Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Organic vs price

It’s interesting to observe how things evolve. 

About two and a half decades ago, I was a buyer for an organic health food store. It was in the very early days of the organic movement in Australia – organic certification did not yet exist. At that time, it was actually illegal to bring fresh organic produce into the Flemington markets, as the produce might contain bugs. These bugs could potentially contaminate the entire Sydney produce distribution system! The same problem existed in other fresh produce markets in the capital cities all around Australia.

As part of my job, I had to liaise with organic producers to see how we could build business together. I attended grower’s forums in country towns, letting farmers know about our business, listening to their requirements and basically trying to join the dots so that we could bring this produce to the Sydney marketplace.

I went to a forum in Gunnedah where there were a number of wheat farmers attending. They told me it was all very well selling one kilo bags of organic flour to shoppers, but they had to sell the bulk of their grain as non-organic grain, because there just wasn't enough demand for organic flour. As a result, their organic product did not fetch a premium price, which didn't seem fair to me at all, seeing as they were doing their farming the hard way.

They told me that they needed bakeries to use organic flour, so as to keep the produce away from the market system altogether. If they could sell flour this way, they said, the price would eventually come down, as there would be a larger economy of scale to work with. I went out to bakeries and offered their product – and the bakeries immediately rejected it because it was twice the price of conventional flour. So much for that idea.

To cut a long story short, this led to the start of my first, second and third bakeries. I did it, in part, to create a market for organic flour! 

Our bakery in the Blue Mountains, at its peak, made between five and ten tonnes of organic flour into bread and pastries each week. We charged a premium price for our bread, which came to about 50% more than comparable product - but we had virtually no real competition at the time, and over the years reduced our margins as new players forced us to compete on price.

During this time, the organic farms set up their supply chains - millers, distributors and so on. Simultaneously the organic industry created its certification system, which extracted a percentage from each link in the supply chain, so as to maintain organic certification. Each layer therefore added a compound percentage to the cost of the grain reaching the retail market. 

So while the promised economies of scale were achieved, the cost benefit to the consumer disappeared, as the certification industry absorbed this benefit.

Pretty soon we had competing certification bodies, all charging different scales of fees to the producers, processors and distributors. And in the process causing huge confusion at both ends of the supply chain. Consumers didn't know who to trust, and producers looked for the cheapest option, which wasn't always the best.  

Many years later, organic flour is still twice the price of conventional flour. There are now lots of specialist organic bakeries – but I have strayed from the fold a little in the past few years. My labour intensive methods have meant that I was unable to use the substantially higher priced organic flour in my Artisan breads, and still compete with larger artisan bakeries on price.

However, now that we have established a strong following, I can once again use organic flour, at least in a small way. So I have started to do that, and my customers seem to be happy about it so far. But asking an extra dollar a loaf may well prove to be a bridge too far for some. I have chosen to keep using conventional flour in most of my breads, so as to keep the price reasonably affordable for my customers.

I’ll be very interested to hear from you about organic vs price. What are your thoughts? If you choose organic, how much are you prepared to pay compared to regular produce? Is it organic at any price? Or are there other factors in your buying decision making process? Would love to know...

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Antisocial Baker

Now and again someone pokes their head in the kitchen door at the bakery and just watches what we’re doing. Sometimes these people are just curious about what happens in a bakery – but often I can tell straight away it’s an old time baker checking out what we do with trained interest. 

This happened again last week, and it inspired me to share with you some of the reasons behind what I am trying to do. This bakery, apart from being committed to making awesome artisan bread,  is all about solving problems - from half a lifetime running bakeries, I have seen and experienced quite a few.

One of the things is I am trying to create here at SourdoughBaker Cafe is a sustainable workplace for bakers themselves. Too many bakers are lost to the industry because of the enormous toll that being a baker takes.

Bakers work awful hours – starting in the middle of the night, often never seeing the sunshine. They gradually become sleep deprived as result of attempting to maintain some connection with their family and friends. Often, they become isolated from the rest of us who maintain normal hours. 

I have seen families (and bakers) gradually break down far too many times. I'm sure this occurs with any occupation which is primarily a night time one - but in the case of bakeries, there is no great financial reward for the bakers in doing these hellish hours, and in the main, there are workable alternatives to the midnight start. It's just that very few bakeries have tried to change the status quo.

One of the reasons you can’t pop in to our bakehouse and pick up a loaf of hot, fresh sourdough at 7 in the morning is that I won’t ask anyone to work completely antisocial hours. 

We start at 6am most days, which means our bakers get to hang with friends and family on a regular basis. We still manage to get fresh bread out of the oven by about 9am. We try to have some late baked bread from the day before reserved for the morning’s toast as well, just in case our customers are in need. If you know our bread well, you will know that it’s perfectly fresh for a full 24 hours after it’s baked, so we have no qualms about providing this each morning while the new batch of delicious sourdough bread comes out of the oven.

Bakers are, in the main, hardworking craftspeople. They have been treated unfairly as a result of a consumer expectation of fresh bread first thing in the morning. While there are quite valid reasons in some cases why a bakery needs to finish their baking by six a.m (for example, wholesale deliveries to cafes and so forth), there are just as many ways to achieve civilised baking hours by utilising existing technology and leveraging what can be done with products, packaging and customer expectation. 

Really, I find it bizarre and a bit last century when I speak to bakers who still have to work the old fashioned ungodly hours.

I agree though - our stance with regard to slightly later product on the shelves does cost our bakery money in lost business. It also makes us just that little bit more sustainable. I hope you agree.

And working in daylight hours means I get to have a chat with passing old time bakers too!