(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...|
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.
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.