Coming to grips with 'Erratic Bread Syndrome' at Yirri Grove

The Nullabor, twisted by me, in a camera.

The Nullabor, twisted by me, in a camera.

The final workshop for the Esperance leg of the trip was held at Yirri Grove Olive plantation, out on the other side of good old Esperance.

I love the twist and turns of this journey; how they continue to surprise me. Plain sailing was never the objective of this trip. Nor was it expected, with an eighteen year old car and a recycled bakery shop being towed about fourteen thousand kilometers while crossing the seventh largest continent on earth. Not to mention a Kelpie canine and a Burmese feline who both ‘volunteered’ to ride with me. Esperance

We’re going WHERE?

We’re going WHERE?

(It was an open discussion between us. I did the talking and they did the listening.)

The Tour Down South was to dive in a deep pool of unknowns; and to have a go at something I hadn’t done before.

I often delude myself that I have been the inventor of lots of things in the bread world, or that I was the first one to do a particular thing. Pretty much every time I begin to think this, somebody from the other side of either the world or Australia lets me know that in fact this thing has been done centuries ago. Nonetheless, I’m still pretty sure I’m the first person to take a wood fired bakery across Australia and back on a six by four trailer. Please, prove me wrong!

One of my clients in Perth called my idea to do this trip ‘ballsy’. At the time, I wondered how he could see it that way. I mean, a coolroom powered by the breeze, and a wood fired oven, some flour, some firewood. No water. What could possibly go wrong? And if something did go wrong, well, I could turn to YouTube for help, like everyone else does. Or Instagram. Or Facebook.

We are never alone, even when we are in the middle of the Nullabor.

(Except, of course, there is no internet in the middle of the Nullabor. ‘Null’ means ‘none’. We are not talking a little ‘none’ here either. We are talking a big ‘none’. You have no idea how big ‘big’ is, but I’ll return to that idea later.)

Now I was on my way to Yirri Grove Olives, where Anne O’Neill ran a small plantation and pressing facility. They also have a cafe there, just past the wetlands of Esperance.

This is a place where there is a sign on the side of the road which keeps drivers updated daily as to the condition of the roads in the area. It’s not uncommon to lose a road or track due to various reasons - the tides, the changeable (and very windy) weather and so forth. The sign at the edge of it helps locals and visitors keep up to date on daily conditions.

I’m ushered into a large awning behind the cafe, plenty of space for the Bush Bakery MkII and my coterie of creatures. Being protected from the elements in this elemental place was a relief.

We are immediately accosted by a noisy crew of guinea fowl, who come charging down to the fence beside the awning to let us know they were on the job, and not to try anything stupid. Immediately, my kelpie Pippa is fascinated. She’s a cattle dog, and these are like cattle fowl. I think she was impressed. Or confused. Or both.

Here’s Anne, looking blurry. That’s because I’M blurry.

Here’s Anne, looking blurry. That’s because I’M blurry.

Anne and her husband are truly the most welcoming folk I think I have ever met. From the moment I arrived to the moment I left three days later, I was embraced like family. This experience of ‘welcoming the stranger’ has proved to be a profound one for me. Everywhere I stayed across the continent, I felt like a stranger; and yet, was welcomed almost universally. There were exceptions, which may well be expanded upon in some other blog at some other time. On this night, me and my family of furry friends were made welcome. We rested well.

The time gap between workshops was minimal. It took me back to ‘working’ as a musician back in the day. Pack it up, and set it up again somewhere else. Do it fast, and do it efficiently, so you can do it again. Breakfast hospitality was new, and welcome - so much so that before I knew it I had another dozen keen bread makers waiting on me to finish setting up!

At this workshop, I stumbled on another clue which would eventually lead me to solve the riddle of the ‘Erratic Bread Syndrome’ which had been plaguing me of late. For the past few workshops and bake offs, I had mixed results - which have been discussed in this blog on numerous occasions. Some breads I had baked along the way were okay, some were pretty good, and some were atrocious. I just couldn’t seem to get it consistently right. It would have been easier to solve the problem if the bread had been consistently bad - but the mixed results made it harder to work out where the issues were.

Thus far, I had observed that my list of variables was huge - variable flour, variable water, variable temperature and variable weather. Indeed, the entire trip had been one variable after another. So my breads were simply following suit. But how could I grab this thing by the tail and get control of it?

I was pursueing this process of ‘reducing variables’ when it occurred to me that the age of my starter between feeds was also a variable. I would sometimes go a couple of weeks between bakes, and as such I would simply keep the desem (dough starter) cool as best I could - but feeds were fairly irregular, and temperatures varied quite a lot as well. My ‘coolgardie’ style evaporative cooler was next to useless.

The first incarnation of the ‘Coolgardie Coolroom’.

The first incarnation of the ‘Coolgardie Coolroom’.

(As you might not have been following this story, I’ll explain. I designed the Bush Bakery MkII to be as ‘off the grid’ as possible. I reasoned that a simple evaporative cooler, a la the ‘Coolgardie Safe’ crossed with a ‘zeer pot’ would work well enough to store dough and sourdough starter in the middle of Winter crossing the desert.)

I went through lots of evolutions in thinking about this idea of an ‘evaporative coolroom’, until I ended up with something that was capable of being both a cooler and a proofer. It had expanded clay balls from an aquaculture setup contained in screens along the walls, which were filled with water via a bleed hose. The water, theoretically, evaporated from the clay pellets via airflow, which came through the walls as the trailer moved through the air. It was like an automatic evaporator, which was supposed to reduce the temperature of the air.

When I wanted to 'proof’ (warm) the dough just prior to baking, I simply added a spirit burner (a ‘trangia’ alcohol burner) and a plate of water mounted on top, which warmed up the box and created steam. As far as this side of the equation was concerned, the proofer worked a treat. The cooler, on the other hand, could at the very best remove 5 degrees c from the air temp. I concluded that there wasn’t enough air flow to really circulate the air. My plumber’s skills were also lacking, as I couldn’t get the bleed hoses to work properly in the screens.

THe ‘Coolgardie Coolroom’ in proofer mode.

THe ‘Coolgardie Coolroom’ in proofer mode.

As I write this blog post some months later, and I can tell you that I’ve now made the cooler work via a small solar powered battery and some low friction computer fans mounted in the walls. These work pretty well, but when I was on the road the ‘coolgardie coolroom’ side of things was an impediment. I had resorted to purchasing ice on a regular basis to keep starter and food cool on the road. This meant that the starter could swing from under ripe to overripe quite quickly.

As I traveled, there was not always the facility (decent water, relatively enclosed space and good weather) to set up the mobile bakery and feed the starter.

The starter had been fed just before the last bake at Bread Local. It had been getting quite a bit of a workout, actually, with three bakes in just a few days. So that eliminated another variable.

In the workshop, we made dough as a group, using a few techniques which enable people to be able to make dough cleanly almost anywhere, including out in the bush where there might not even be any table! Our doughs worked really well, though were not ripe in time to bake in the wood fired oven.

Because I had been experiencing ‘Erratic Bread Syndrome’, I pre made some dough the day before the workshop so the students could bake it on the day. This was like a kind of insurance policy; the dough may go off too quickly, or not at all, so ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’ came to be my primary backup. I also shaped some dough ready to bake; I really didn’t expect it to last in the faulty cooler. When I checked it in the morning, it had skinned, and, miraculously, somehow it seemed to be in good condition, beyond the skin that it had formed. The ‘skin’ is normally a negative, but in this case it was holding the batards together in the cooler.

As I mentioned earlier, there were lots of layers of preparation for this class - I was determined to remove baking risk. We baked various stages of dough that day, fresh dough, overnight proofed dough, and pre formed dough - unsurprisingly, with mixed results. Some were okay, but there were also some flat ones.

The mystery deepened. It didn’t seem to matter how much preparation I did - how many ‘insurance policies’ I made to ensure I had some decent bread for my students. I still was having failures, and that meant I was still struggling to figure out which of my variables was causing the problem.

I had removed another variable as well - I had returned to using Wholegrain Milling flour, thanks to Tiff using it at her bakery. I knew wholegrain milling’s flour, so I bought a bag from Tiff’s supply (thanks Tiff!) before I left. Prior to this I used whatever I could get at the local supermarket. I was confident I could work with many different types of flour, but this was proving to add a variable.

So two variables eliminated now.

Water, temperature and weather remained variables to be dealt with. I may never get on top of the last one; but if I do, there’s an excellent subject for another blog post!

It seemed like I had still had numerous problems, all at the same time. It never rains, as they say. Until it pours.

The Bush Oven, insulated by the use of some firebricks and terracotta pots placed on top.

The Bush Oven, insulated by the use of some firebricks and terracotta pots placed on top.

I was becoming more aware of the limitations of my Bush Oven. It had very little insulation, and so was dependent on constant fire to achieve good results. In a workshop situation, this is a hard ask, as it can become a full time job just keeping the fire at the right pitch. I can rarely do both things - keep a fire running well and teach a group of people - simultaneously. Often, a compromise involving intense fire activity interspersed with none whatsoever, was reached. Not what the scientist in me would call ‘consistent’. So add this to the ever growing list of variables in my current baking practice. Occasionally I would delegate a member of the group to this task of ‘keeping the flame that never will die’, but the finesse involved ends up becoming too much for the student. They too struggle to attend the class and run the fire at the same time. This technique was also flawed, but it did help when I had a good firekeeper.

Just another variable to absorb in the problem solving process - firewood!

Just another variable to absorb in the problem solving process - firewood!

To add to this, different locations offered up different timbers. This place had a legendary fuel, mallee root, which many people rave about. I used to have access to it in the Blue Mountains from time to time - we had a firewood fetcher fella who would bring it down every year for us, and with my slow combustion fuel stove (which warmed the house at Medlow Bath back in the day), Mallee root burned as hot as coal, and as long lasting. I thought it was amazing, and got it whenever our wood fetcher had it. This time around, though, my little baker’s oven didn’t like it at all, as it generated lots of hot coal. The Bush Oven (in fact all of the ovens I’ve designed), prefers flame. The flame pushes the flue gas more efficiently all the way around the baking chamber. Hot coals, on the other hand, tend to make the bottom deck too hot, and the top deck gets too cold.

Some timbers are better at delivering flame than others, and these were not always plentiful. As they say; ‘You pays your money and you takes your chances’. So yes, firewood quality was another variable I had to deal with.

Reduce two variables, Starter and Flour; and discover another two, the Oven and Firewood. Two steps forward, and two steps back. Could it be that I have discovered the ‘Bakery Two step’ ?

After the workshop, I decided to process some of the leftover dough we had made that day - I had a hot oven; why waste the heat? I asked Anne and her husband to swing by later for an extended bake off. The oven had been running for many hours by now. I processed the dough through the second proof, and shaped some dough the students had left as well. By the time Anne and her husband came with wine and cheese and, of course, olives, all the dough had been shaped and was proofing nicely. I baked off some mini baguettes and some batards. All were sensational. The shape held, and the crust and crumb were both very acceptable. It had been the best bake I had done since before Perth. So what was I doing right?

Mini Baguettes and some batards.

Mini Baguettes and some batards.

We already established I had fresher starter. So one variable didn’t play into the results of the day. Secondly, I was now using consistent flour, rather than whatever I could get at the supermarket along the way. Another variable under control. Third thing: the water had changed. Some of it had been filtered and treated with light, which was how it worked here at Anne’s orchard, and this tasted pretty clear. The water I had used throughout the west had tasted like clay, almost without exception. Some of the dough made at this workshop was made using ‘clear’ water; but some of it had been made a day earlier, which hadn’t been filtered in the same way.

Thus, the quality of water wasn’t necessarily part of the solution here. Nonethless, if I was going to solve problems, understanding all the variables was essential - it was a large list, and getting larger and more complex as I went along. Changes in water quality were still a potential contributor. So I filled all my tanks with this clear water. I had about 60 litres all up, so this would have to last me until the next time I could load up with good water. I had a trip across the Nullabor, and my next workshop a full two weeks away, near Mildura back in Victoria. So I was most likely to use most of this water before I would make dough again. At least this time, I would have nice water on board to cross the desert!

(Last Nullabor crossing, the water I drank was ‘whatever was available’, - hadn’t allowed for enough storage capacity on the trailer - local water was often undrinkable. I had since added more water storage.)

I still managed to reserve about 10 litres of clean water for dough in Victoria, so that keeps that variable at bay for a little while!

So at Yirri Grove workshop it was back to Great bread. Since I’ve crossed the border into WA, it’s been Crap bread, Great bread, Crap bread, Mediocre bread, Great bread. The Erratic Bread Syndrome continues.

With two variables removed, another mitigated against, and quite a few more identified, I was actually feeling like I was making forward progress. Onward across the Nullabor one more time. I had the mental strength necessary to do it this time. I was getting used to life on the road. It was making me stronger.

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