Another Nullabor Crossing - and time to analyse the 'Erratics'.
The west had entered my veins. I was a long way from the Hunter Valley. Yet I felt at home. I understand now why Western Australians have a different presence, a kind of WA attitude. They understand how damn big this country is, because they experience it more often than maybe us East Coast folk do.
I decided to head back to Perth for a few more days. I had a bit more free time before I was due to embark on the return Nullabor crossing, on my way to Mildura, and then on to the central west of NSW. After that, home sweet home - which is actually not even built yet, so I guess I could look forward to more ‘glamping’ in my caravan when I got back. That’s a story for another blog post.
Perth is an interesting place. It’s like a kind of ‘tiny city’ - you know, in the same way that you can have a ‘tiny house’. It’s not quite a city, but all the props are in place. There are not that many people there - and they are really spread out. Perth is a collection of suburbs. A quick visit to the ABS website verifies this; while Western Australia has about a person per square kilometer or less in most places. Perth’s population density is going up. Drilling a bit deeper, the city population density is not that much less than Sydney’s per square kilometer, but the actual ‘city hub’ of Perth is about three blocks in area. You could crawl it from one side to the other and still have workable knees. While Perth has been growing, it is a captive of the mining economy - it’s a kind of ‘boom and bust’ town. The fortunes of the place are intricately tied up with the fortunes of the mining business. When I was there, the mining business was on the wane, so property prices were also on the wane. Nonetheless, the place looked and felt prosperous and on the whole, positive.
I was pretty enamoured with Fremantle. It feels a bit ‘make believe’, but it was a kind of make believe I could buy into. There was a thriving city ‘market’ economy - the whole place seemed to revolve around the Freo market, which operates four days a week; the town kind of spills out from the market and onto the marina and foreshore; or if you go the other way, into past millenia, a foot friendly village with a plethora of things like bookshops and curiosity stuff to explore. Cars were clearly not invented when they built this place.
So Freo was funky; a place where they have taken tourism seriously from a brand point of view. It’s has a working harbour, like Newcastle in the Hunter region (where I’ve spent the last decade or so). It felt familiar, but with the sun coming up and going down on the wrong side of the harbour. A great place to visit. Not sure how it would be to live there; more research will be needed. Not planning on relocating any time soon, but this side of the country has certain attractions.
After a few days relaxing and hanging out, I ventured back towards the Nullabor. I think I got a bit freaked out by the vastness of the journey - literally crossing the country again, with that bloody enormous plain at the beginning. Now I knew the distances involved, and was better prepared. Nonetheless, the journey home still daunted me. I hadn’t considered the final leg of the trip very much - bookings and venues for workshops were flowing in slowly for this part of the Tour Down South, but a fair bit of the organising was still not complete, as I was doing it on the fly, waiting for people to get back to me in many cases. Thus, I decided to cancel any workshops that didn’t have people booked into them as yet. This meant that I had plenty of time to get all the way from Perth to Mildura in NSW.
One thing the Nullabor provides is headspace. Whether this is a good thing or not I’m not sure. On those long, grinding stretches of flat earth, my mind wandered around the cosmos of flickering thoughts in my head, looking for a thought to grab a hold of, and pull apart. Like the ubiquitous crows on the side of the tarmac, picking away at the recently deceased victims of the road, my mind struggled to stay with one thought long enough to get a proper feed.
It’s believed by those folk who gave us Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, that on any given day, we have somewhere in the vicinity of 50,000 individual thoughts - though many overlap with others. The thoughts we grab a hold of are the ones that set the tone for our mood - so if you grab a hold of the hard things, the things that aren’t resolved, or the things that can’t be resolved, you can end up in a bad mood, or even depressed. On the other hand, if we simply watch our thoughts go by, without attaching to any one of them, we remain productive and positive.
I tried to employ this technique, but found myself returning to the ‘too hard basket’ over and over again. I was that crow who finds a carcass on a busy stretch of highway. Every time he (or she) goes to get a decent peck of it, a car comes and he (or she) has to get out of the way, or risk being flattened. One of the things in this particular basket was the Erratic Bread Syndrome I’ve been documenting for the past few posts. Try as I might, I seemed to be unable to isolate any single variable. Was it the WA water? Was it my starter? Was it the flour? Was it my oven? Was it the firewood?
The analysis of variables wasn’t helping at all - there were too many moving parts to this particular issue for me to be able to confidently isolate any one part to have a proper look at it. So I began to compare what I was working with at present to what I usually worked with at my own bakery in the Hunter Valley. There were a number of things which were different. At home, I had refrigeration. I had rainwater. I had the same flour all the time. I had the same fuel for the oven (I purchased sawmill offcuts in large amounts, which gradually seasoned as the year progressed). In short, I had a pretty consistent setup. This meant that I could change one thing and see the effect straight away. Or, if something like the weather changed, I had the ability to mitigate the effects via refrigeration and timing.
Timing. I hadn’t really looked at timing. I have all sorts of charts which I’ve gradually developed over the years at the bakery. These charts gave me a pretty good idea of how long dough takes to ripen at different temperatures, and at different stages of the proofing process. They weren’t super accurate, but in constant conditions they worked well. I didn’t have constant conditions now. I had ambient temperatures, and these varied quite a bit. I could knock five or maybe ten degrees off the ambient temp using ice and fans in my Coolgardie Coolroom, but this wasn’t enough to really get control of the leavening process.
I was aware of an issue with regard to the time I made the dough for the classes. In order to get some fresh bread out of the oven by the end of the workshop (in winter), I needed longer than 8 hours for the whole process, yet the workshop was only 8 hours long. I hadn’t been able to make dough a few hours before the class began, because this would mean making dough before first light. While this was achievable sometimes, more often than not on the road it wasn’t. I often didn’t have anything more than torchlight to work with; I also had to fully set up the bakery to make dough - water, benches, flour and so forth. When camping in caravan parks, cheek by jowl with a neighbour, the sound of me banging around at sparrows fart wasn’t something the neighbours took kindly to.
In addition, usually I would have to tow my trailer into the venue just before the workshop and set up. I then had to assemble the portable oven and generally work fast to get it all done before people arrived. I rarely had access to venues the day before; if I did, I would make the dough in the evening before I went to bed, The plan was to keep it cool overnight so that it would be optimally ripe for the class the next day. If it was a cold night, the dough kept. If it wasn’t, the dough would be on the edge of being over ripe by the time we would get into it with the group. So here was something I hadn’t properly thought through in my planning, and it wasn’t something I could easily fix.
Another bloody variable! Timing! I was kinda hoping to get to some resolution of the issue as I crossed the Nullabor, but instead I was adding in more complexity.
It was easier to angst over other things. It really was. So my mind went through all sorts of stuff - you name it, I thought around it; relationships, the state of my vehicle, the health of the animals, my kids, my family, the weather, my own health, reviewing the trip, money, what I will do when I get back, and on it went. Fifty thousand thoughts each day.
It takes at least three days to cross the Nullabor. It takes another three days to traverse the rest of South Australia, and then another day or two to cross into NSW. I considered doing a quick trip up to Broken Hill, but I had a full group at the Mildura workshop, so I decided to save that for next time.
Crossing the Murray river provided me with my first actual desert experience. The Nullabor is a plain, not a desert. Life is everywhere, intensely, on the Nullabor. But crossing back into South Australia, right next to the Murray river, I got a taste of actual desert. This surprised me. I was heading into Berri, the fruit and wine capital of the country. I was looking at vast areas of flat land, which once grew fruit or grapes. Not any more. Now it’s a vast empty place. I was confronted by a dust storm so thick that vehicles had to pull over till it passed. It was a struggle to see further than the bonnet of the car. It was intense. I got the feeling that this was a desert made by man. It was brutal.
My next workshop was at Red Cliffs, just outside Mildura. A lovely little town, with civic pride flowing through its veins. I was meeting up with Joanne Farrel, who ran the local community centre, along with many other community ventures. She was a tonic after the journey I had just survived - down to earth, practical and clearly a community asset. We had me all set up and sorted out in her back shed within a few hours, and I was keen to get some preparation happening for my next workshop, after thinking about it for the past week or two amongst the fifty thousand other thoughts I had been observing per day as I traveled.
It was a great workshop, with keen locals picking my brain in every direction. The bread was better - I had purchased some block ice locally, which meant that I could keep my dough sufficiently cold to get it through the workshop without breaking down. So this was an improvement. Perhaps thinking about timing was helping - either that, or that bloody big block of ice!
I had a bit of time up my sleeve before the workshop in Bathurst, so I decided to swing through Temorah on the way. I had been there only once before, some 40 years earlier. Back then, it was a tiny outpost ‘hanging on’, as best it could. I was surprised to see how the town had changed and adapted - if anything, it was a thriving small town now.
As the trip wound its way through lots of small and medium sized country towns right across the country, I started to get a sense of how different towns and regions cope with change. Many of them have given over to the relentless shopping mall - these towns seem to have lost a bit of their soul as a result. The mall sucks the life out of the main drag, and these places look and feel like every other place. Uniform, featureless. Samey.
Not Temorah though. It has embraced its history, and resisted the urge to allow the corporates to reinvent the place. You can see it in the way the town still has a viable main street. Lots of old buildings, remnants of the town’s history, not only still stand, but have been tarted up a bit, despite their function no longer being required. For this reason, Temorah still feels ‘real’. I felt heartened by this.
It was late August. The weather had been gradually warming up, and I thought the worst of winter was behind me now. I was wrong. When I got to Bathurst, I set my ‘boudoir’ up at a mate’s little farmlet at Dunkeld. I chose a spot out the back overlooking the rolling hills. I hadn’t expected to be brutalised by cold, but one night there and I had my tail between my legs. The temperature dropped to below zero overnight, and in the morning I stepped out to find the ground was covered in sleet. The creatures, particularly Mishka, were not impressed.
It was a bit of a surprise, as I’d already rolled up the extra blankets, thinking I wouldn’t be needing them. Me and the creatures had spent the night huddling together for warmth. Lesson: never take the weather for granted.
Bathurst is a larger regional town - quite spread out these days - but somehow, despite the aforementioned ‘corporate mall sprawl’, it has retained its character. The main streets are wide and interconnected, and the city seems to have retained its heart. I went to school there back in the 70s. My memory of the place back then isn’t all that positive - it was smaller, but kind of disjointed. It still is, in a way, but it retains its unique character, and that’s nice.
They have a great wholefoods co op there, and there seems to be a bit of an ‘alternate’ community growing along nicely in the town. I had originally planned to run two workshops there - one at the food co op, and the other at a place called the Rahamim Ecology Centre. I hadn’t seen the food co op before I visited this time, but upon inspecting the venue, I could see it was going to be difficult to set up there, due to my lengthy set up process. The food co op was inside a small shopping mall, and getting the Bush Bakery and Boudoir in there with my animals, my trailer and me was going to be a stretch. I wanted to avoid setting up before dawn, so I needed to camp there to have enough time to set up. I decided to combine the two workshops at the Rahamim Centre instead.
The Rahamim Centre was just out of town, at a church sanctuary. It had a working permaculture community garden, a lovely outdoor BBQ and pizza area, and it was really easy to access with my trailer.
Prior to the workshop, I made a small batch of dough at my friend’s house and baked it. Very ordinary bread resulted, leaving me less than confident that all my analysis was getting me anywhere at all. I was feeling incredibly disheartened, and still confused as to what was going wrong!
The workshop proceeded well despite my feelings. The bitter cold, though, crept in as the day progressed. We were outside, and despite a ferocious fire in the Bush Oven, keeping warm proved to be quite difficult. It took me straight back to school days, and memories of Bathurst’s brutal winters. Baking in this weather brought challenges that I hadn’t had to worry about for a while, but everything seemed to run smoothly, and we got reasonably good bread out of the Bush Oven, well ahead of the finish of the workshop. Once again I was unable to really get a good ‘bloom’ out of the dough - despite my best efforts at timing the whole process correctly.
By now, though, the jigsaw puzzle of variables was slowly starting to make sense. Just as well, too, as it was the last workshop of the Tour Down South!
I looked at the list of variables so far. The starter was good. The flour was consistent. The water was fine. The timber for the oven was well seasoned and flamed well.
On the other hand, timing was difficult here, as the cold weather meant that dough ripened slowly. I had made dough the night before, and this dough ended up being at least twelve hours old by the time we processed it. While I couldn’t accurately record the temperature over the entirety of the first proof, it was somewhere in the vicinity of 15 to 20 degrees on average for the time it was stored.
The sponge, or pre ferment, was made with very cold water (hot water was a hassle from a camping point of view) and while it was partially active when I made the dough, it could have had significantly more time.
And in the extreme cold, the oven’s lack of insulation showed quite dramatically. The shape of the loaves wasn’t ‘even’ - a problem I hadn’t encountered since Tiff’s place at Esperance. This could only mean that certain parts of the oven weren’t getting as hot as others. They were higher at the back of the oven than they were nearest the door.
My take home message from this bake, and from the last section of the Tour Down South, was the Bush Bakery needed to have better temperature control. The Coolgardie Coolroom was, at this time, a failure; it couldn’t bring the dough down to ten degrees C or less, and I think this would have been optimal for timing things to work in a one day workshop setting. Had I been able to make the dough at 3am, for example, things may have been different - but when your baking day starts at 3 in the morning and finishes at 6pm in the evening, it’s a bloody long day! I refused to destroy myself for the sake of a few loaves of bread! Been there, done that!
Temperature control would also have solved the starter ripeness issue too. While I believe the starter didn’t suffer as badly as a result of being held at between 15 and 20 degrees C most of the time when compared to how dough fared at the same temps, it still meant that I had to feed it more often than was ideal. Dough starter keeps fantastically well at cooler temps - below 15 at the very least - and performs best when it’s nicely ripe. I’m forever telling my students NOT to overfeed the starter! Without proper cooling, feeds had to be more frequent, and this in turn caused the ‘bed’ of ripe starter to vary in size quite a bit. As a result, the starter tends to become a bit less acid than ideal.
The Coolgardie Coolroom couldn’t bring dough temperatures down enough for overnight storage. Why was this important? Well, at 20 degrees, a dough will ripen in about 6 hours or so. My dough, on this occasion, had gone for 12 to 15 hours - way too long. Because of the cold ambient temperatures, it didn’t actually ‘break down’, as it might have done in summer, but nonetheless it was pretty much spent by the time we cut it.
Another important take away from all of this is to keep a proper Baker’s Diary, particularly when you are experiencing changes to your baking routine. I teach this all the time, but it seems I hadn’t been heeding my own lesson on this trip. Had I kept detailed records of everything that was happening, I think I could have got to the bottom of the problem much sooner than I did.
In the diary, one needs to record the time when different stages in the process take place, from pre ferment to finished loaf of bread. You also need some temperature data - ambient temperatures (approximate) as well as internal dough temperatures. You need to keep details like general observations as you work through the process. How does the dough feel? Did it feel ripe when you cut it? Was it stiff? Did the flour hold more water than usual? What type of flour are you using? Details. Keep it brief, and keep it in a format that’s easy to reference later. Record things like the date, season, flour types, and if you use different formulations, record which ones you are using. It’s hard to do this stuff when your hands are covered in dough, and it’s inconvenient sometimes. If your process is sorted, and you rarely change it, make sure you have a templated version of your process written down. You don’t have to make diary entries every time, especially if little changes between batches - but if there are changes, it is especially important to note them. Otherwise, like me, you might spend a lot of mental energy trying to figure stuff out. The brain is faulty, from a memory perspective, which is why you need to make sure you have written it down! In my case, I waited until I was thoroughly confused before I began to break things into bits and pieces - and as someone who has done this for 30 years, well, I should have simply assumed that with all the changes I was making, there was going to be a problem or three.
Another thing for me to work on was my oven. It did work quite well on the trip, but because of the need for it to be lightweight, a lack of insulation and thermal mass made the oven perform differently in different weather conditions. I would never have expected this to have as big an effect as it did, but now I’m looking at it again with the benefit of hindsight, this was a factor in the Erratic Bread Syndrome.
Now that I had crossed the country and returned in one piece, and the Tour Down South was pretty much done and dusted, I could assess things more carefully. As Rob from Perth said, it was a ballsy (foolhardy?) thing to do. Most of the ‘completely off the grid’ technology I chose to work with in my setup - the bakery trailer with its Coolgardie Coolroom/ spirit burner proofer, the wood fired Bush Oven and the rest of it - was completely untested. Add to that the double function of the trailer as my ‘boudoir’ along the way, being towed by an 18 year old Toyota Landcruiser, and you have a recipe for, at the very least, adventure. Most of my inventions worked reasonably well, with the exception of the Coolgardie Coolroom (and I have since redesigned this with a degree of success).
On the Tour Down South, I had traveled some 14,000 kilometers across some pretty harsh and unforgiving country; I ran 13 sourdough workshops for a total of about a hundred people; I did a demonstration bake, and two bakery consultations: I took my animals along for the ride, and camped in a totally self sufficient way the whole time. I made running repairs and improvements to everything as I went, and by the time the tour was done I had ironed out the functional issues around the setup I had designed and built.Oh, and along the way I baked a couple of hundred loaves of bread as well!
I set myself a particularly tricky brief, especially when you add the extra challenge of the Bush Bakery being made almost entirely from recycled or repurposed equipment. My animals and I survived. We all ate, slept and played well. I got to hang out with some dear friends all over the country, and there are a whole bunch of new home bakers now who have begun to make great bread themselves. The ideas which drove me to do this have been tested, reassessed, and passed on. I learned a lot about my craft, and about myself. I saw parts of the country I probably wouldn’t have in other circumstances, and I did it all on an absolute shoestring.
The Tour Down South, and the story about it, is now ‘a wrap’. If you’ve just picked up on the story, please take the time to wind back a few posts and read the whole thing - it’ll make more sense. In future posts, I’ll show you what I’ve now done to the Bush Bakery to make it a fully functioning off grid mobile bakery. I’ve been using it this past coupe of months since I returned as my micro bakery, while I await the finished construction of my new (stationary) bakery and classroom here in an old dairy in the hills of Wallarobba.
Thanks for hanging in to the end! I hope this story has inspired you to do something crazy as well!