Cicadas ate my bellbirds!

It's mid summer here in the Watagans. I can barely hear myself under the din of cicadas. It's so loud that it causes the internal cavities inside my ear to rattle when I go outside.

Right now, there are literally millions of cicadas surrounding my house. I know this, because they are all churping at full throttle as I write.  The sound comes in waves, reaching a deafening crescendo before subsiding somewhat, but without end. All day long. Inside the house, it's bearable if I close all the windows, turn on the air conditioning, and do something noisy. Unfortunately, it's really difficult to listen to music, as the pitch of the cicadas removes a certain frequency from one's hearing, like white noise does. Right now it's early morning and not so hot, so I have all the windows open, and fresh air is flooding through the house.  Accompanying the din, there is nothing. Most of the birds have vacated - I think that's what the cicadas are doing, by singing at the top of their lungs - they are driving away potential predators while they emerge, mate, lay their eggs and die. Even the dogs have fled to escape the noise. My pack of  canine cuties essentially follow me around wherever I am, so if I'm in the house, they are on the verandah. But not today. They are hiding in the cavernous garage with the door half closed to give them a break from the noise. Dogs are such ear driven creatures. It freaks them out when they can't hear properly. 

For those of you who have not yet attended a workshop here, the house is surrounded on three sides by dense bush - eucalypt forest, broadly speaking, with quite a steep rise behind us. The rise leads up to an access road, which verges this place. To get up there through the bush almost involves climbing gear, it's so steep.  This eucalypt scrub/forest goes on in some directions literally for fifty or more kilometres, as you enter the Watagan mountain wilderness. There aren't too many people  up behind us - I would estimate maybe a dozen cars regularly use the access road - and some of them you wouldn't see more than a couple of times a year.  It's the first time since I've had the bush bakery here - which is about three and a half years now - that there has been such a cicada onslaught.  Pretty sure there have been some cicadas each year, but nothing beyond curiosity was aroused in me. Certainly nothing to remember. I definitely remember the super hot weeks (average 45C for three weeks straight last year), the super wet ones (a couple of years back the rains were so heavy we had to dig trenches around the house so the holding dam wouldn't flood), the super dry and hot ones (last year, again, there were bushfires on the horizon or closer pretty much every day). This place, in a nutshell, seems to attract extremes of climate/environmental conditions. Today, as it has been all summer so far, is no exception.

The bush bakery, of course, is an outdoor affair. It's pretty much a lean-to, pitched on the end of a trailer/bake off unit unit.  The bake off unit has a 3 tonne wood fired oven, a  tray chiller, a proofer, a make up bench, sinks and dumpout racks.  It's open on one side, and has an insulated roof, with your classic corrugated iron deflector above it, installed later to provide a couple of hours' longer protection from the heat when working in 'the box', as I like to call it. It also has a stainless water tank on the roof for its own self contained plumbing system.

I've designed it for a few reasons, which I've discussed in other blog posts (have a look at for the full story about the trailer). Since parking it in its current position, I have made it a more permanent affair, attaching a demountable roof beside it, and a floor built from recycled pallet racking. I've built a very lightweight kitchen around my dough mixer, with shade mesh sides for maximum ventilation. The classroom is beside this, with mesh surrounding a large gazebo. There are blackboards everywhere, and a couple of work benches.

It's been used for baking, consulting and teaching, this space. In the main, it has been an experiment, with an aim of discovering just how little you need to make a few hundred loaves of bread. I think, to that end, it has achieved its purpose. Essentially, you don't need much at all. Indeed, at a future incarnation, I would very much like to strip things down even more. However, there are consequences in choosing to do this. One of them, as has been pointed out at the start of this post, is that for six to eight weeks a year, we are pretty much out of business. It's hard, nigh on impossible, to run a bake in mid summer. The temperatures inside the baking box get up to 50 degrees or more on pretty much every surface - this video is an example of this - and at those temperatures, dough, no matter how cold you keep it - melts. Then, when it rains heavily, you are likely to lose power as the lines gradually become saturated. Over the years I've been able to resolve power issues quite quickly, but when you have over fifty metres to travel to the nearest junction box down the side of a rocky mountain, well, short of investing large amounts of cash, you just constantly try to improve your setup. It's always a work in progress, to put it simply.

So now, in my off season, I get to reassess. It's definitely time to consider this outdoor bakery business. Those of you who have met me at a market or at a workshop know that baking is in my blood. It's very deep in, particularly in recent years when wood fired, third world simple, outdoor sessions were involved. I've been loving it. Right down to my bones.

There's the issue right there. My bones. Over the years, I've managed to stop a couple of cars using mostly my body as the initial deflector. I can tell you, it hurts like hell and I wouldn't advise it. Trouble is, while at the time you don't feel much, the ensuing years and decades make up for it - we are talking, especially, when there has been a considerable amount of time spent on one's feet - as is typical when you embark on baking off a few hundred loaves in a woodfired oven.

The process of pain management these days involves drinking warm water and movement, mainly - but I've used various substances over the years, and somehow one becomes blase about it all. I tend to keep doing the same old thing anyway. I mean, after some of the huge bakes I've done up here at the bush bakery, I'm pretty much incapable of walking more than about ten steps at a time the next day. At times, I've been able to work my way through these periods of extreme pain and stiffness, but as I get older I can see I'll need to really do some proper work on my own body, rather than on my bakery all the time. 

So this coming year, I've decided to make some changes. Broadly speaking, I'll be teaching and writing and consulting more, but baking less. I can feel your pain as you discover that there will be less bread around for a while. But hear me out. In the medium term, when I've finished some infrastructural changes (which involve moving the bakery to a more hospitable environment), my aim is to establish a permanent teaching facility which can operate year round. In addition, my new full time school will bake small amounts more regularly, thereby making better use of the resources I have while not destroying my body too much more than necessary.

The idea is to have a bake each week, which students (particularly 300 series students) can run, under supervision at first, until eventually a complete student run bakery emerges. The facility will be used to manufacture a variety of products, with a semi constant production run. 

In running the 300 Series workshops, I've become aware of the need for a practical facility where students can hone their skills while they are developing their individual business plan. In many cases, students are at the very beginning phase of their dream bakery, so it is often some years before their own situation evolves sufficiently to be commercially viable for them to fully dive in. The School of Sourdough can provide a venue for their professional development. At the same time, the facility can be a regular bakery, in that a small product range of great breads and cakes can be baked onsite each week for distribution and sale locally.

As far as I am aware, no such facility exists here in Australia. As yet, I have not tied down a suitable venue, though there are a few possibilities which I am chewing over. I want to remain here in the Hunter Valley, as its proximity to Newcastle, the airport, the relative proximity to both the Central Coast and Sydney make the lower Hunter ideal for this purpose. In addition, accommodation here in the Hunter Valley is both plentiful and cheap during the mid week, which is when the production run will take place.

I have already been discussing my vision with a couple of local operators in the accommodation business, but I foresee a need for medium term, budget priced, self contained accommodation for visitors - particularly close by the School, so that students can get around without car hire costs. At this point, I'm focusing on Cessnock and surrounding villages. I feel this town is ripe for something like this, and I'm very open to ideas people might have to make it all happen.

Post Script: It’s a year or so after I wrote this blog post. Since then, I’ve crossed the country and back with my Tour Down South, a traveling sourdough workshop on a specially built, recycled trailer which I tagged The Bush Bakery MkII. I’ve packed up the house/ bakery/ school at Ellalong, and I’ve relocated to a mate’s farm at Wallarobba, about an hour from there. I have begun setting up my school and bakery in a disused dairy shed here. It’s about 3/4 finished as I write this, and in a few weeks I’ll be running my first workshop from this new setup. It’s taken a while to get things done, as we are all just doing the renovations to the dairy in between other jobs. But it will be the School of Sourdough’s permanent home, and I would love to show it off to you! More details about the new bakery in another blog post soon, but if you would like to attend any upcoming workshop, you can follow this link to book.