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.     



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