Times of change - the baker hits the road.


Taking Luna's Vital Signs as I prepare for a baking session at a 101 Workshop.

I've been working and teaching at the Bush Bakery for the past few years now. It's been an absolute revelation on so many levels. From thirty years of running numerous bakeries, lots of common issues emerge; big ones include energy usage, wastage, working civilised and family friendly hours, and the effects of long term baking on the body. Others have been how can one simplify the production of sourdough bread so that it is consistent; how to work with the seasons; how to create the most nutritious bread possible sustainably and ethically. There are more issues on this list as well, though the article will rapidly step beyond the subject of the title.

Anyway, I've had to assess them all, and re assess them, over time. The Bush Bakery, then, has been a test bed for the resolution of many aspects of being a baker, and about the practicalities of life in the baking trade. And I have to say it has been a total success as a means of coming to grips with many of these issues. As a bonus, I've also been able to bake some of the best bread I've ever made there, and have taught hundreds of you the basics of the baker's craft since being here.

Baking in the Elements

My past three bakery incarnations have involved semi outdoor baking; it seems to be a natural extension to the idea of working a wood fired oven. There are numerous benefits with this style of baking. The obvious one is avoiding baking the actual baker, which can occur by enclosing the baker in a box with a couple of tonnes of hot thermal mass standing right beside them. Every summer, bakers everywhere adapt to large volumes of sweat being emitted from their pores as they attempt to keep an oven filled with melting dough.  It's never pretty.

I've always considered a baker's summer as an opportunity to clear out the sweat glands and lose a bit of weight.  You sweat a lot, but you just embrace it. You learn to hydrate at levels only athletes can appreciate. Being close to the breeze really helps, though. The Bush Bakery has two open sides, and all I need is a decent fan to move the air around; thus, surviving in hot weather is achievable. 

On the other hand, winter here is delicious, with a couple of tonnes of hot brick on bake day to remove temperature fluctuations. It presents its own issues, of course; not the least of which is to attempt to get the bake done in a reasonable amount of time while the weather is cold. Things slow down in the baking world more and more as the mercury gradually disappears inside its little glass tube.

When you are semi outdoors, the cold is pretty influential. Granted, it doesn't get all that cold here in the lower Hunter Valley; though it's still cold enough for you to really know you are in the middle of winter. On a baking week, I work three days preparing dough, and I don't fire up the oven at all. My environment can be pretty harsh in the dead of winter, with the cold, the wind, and the work all being relatively relentless.  In addition, my techniques involve cooling down dough, so much of the time my extremities (fingers and hands) are being reduced to the temperature of the dough I am working, and it's usually somewhere below ten degrees C when it emerges from the fridge.

Baking strategies have to be devised which are almost diametrically opposed to those used in Summer.

(Having baked for about thirteen winters in the Blue Mountains,  the climate in the Lower Hunter Valley is a walk in the park by comparison. Up in those hills, it tends towards 'brass monkey weather' for the majority of every year; winter baking presents even more intense challenges.)

Overall, though, a cooler climate is better for slowly fermenting sourdough than a hot one. Bakers are nothing if not adaptive creatures, I hasten to add. Once you have survived half a dozen seasons in the same environment, you will learn how to cope with it, no matter what. Nonetheless, practitioners of my craft have always been acutely aware of the seasons; the elemental forces dictate the strategy the baker plans for each bake.  In this regard, bakers share a great deal with farmers, who are always learning to work with the elements.

A Zero Waste Approach

The Bush Bakery is about more than baking outdoors.  I've written on other forums about some of the other things I've been trying to come to grips with while I've been working here. Things like waste. The Bush Bakery is as close to a 'zero waste' bakery as I think it is possible to be. It is largely a closed loop system. On the input side, there are various forms of plastic packaging and so forth which are quite difficult to avoid in the first place, but pretty much every input and output have been thought about in the larger scheme of things. Everything has multiple uses on the way to its end point. I re-use semolina, for example, three times; first, it is sifted over and under the dough; then, overs are sifted and returned  to the container for next use, with any 'scarf', or moistened semolina sifted out and put in the ash bin. Finally, when the floor of the oven is swept clean after loading and emptying, the burnt semolina leftover is also put in the ash tin. This burnt semolina is used at the end of each firing cycle as fuel. It provides a quick burst of flame, and so is useful at various times of the bake when the firebox needs a kick along. 

Waste from re stocking days and workshops is sorted through into incenerables, recyclables and compost. My flour bags get used to establish the fire on bake days, as they are made of paper. I have also used them for various gardening applications as well. I've gradually refined the process of bringing unsold bread from my markets based retail operation into the production process as fuel. Thus, I have been able to refine my way of making 'organic coal', or biochar, using waste heat from the oven. This biochar is now an essential fuel to power the oven.

We discovered 'organic coal' by accident about seven years ago, with one of the first prototype woodfired ovens we made, Bertha. A tired baker would sometimes leave a loaf up the back of the oven without noticing. The following morning when the decks were swept clean for the day’s bake, a black, lightweight piece of coal was discovered. It was thrown in the firebox to dispose of. Wow! It burned like a bomb!

Organic coal has been fully incorporated into my baking practice now.

I also power the oven with sawmill offcuts, making the whole energy supply issue very easy and very cheap to resolve. By driving my oven entirely with waste, I estimate that my total baking setup costs a quarter of conventional commercial baking systems to operate, even when you take into account the extra time you need to devote to maintaining these energy sources. 

Flour dust gets up your nose (and later, everywhere else)

Long term bakers often tell me that flour dust is an issue for them. Some of them, when they combine it with other irritants like tobacco smoke and the like, end up with greatly reduced lung capacity, and even mild emphasema. Flour build up in the lungs is known as ‘white lung’. I didn’t think it was an issue for me. I haven't smoked in many, many years; but at Ellalong, with the bakery down the hill and the dough room up the hill, I was experiencing shortness of breath. I just put it down to my age, and that bloody big hill. By chance, I decided to move the dough room down to the Bush Bakery to make more space in the house. The Bush Bakery had open walls, lined with shade cloth. Suddenly, this shortness of breath decreased quite dramatically. I guess my lungs were filling up with flour from making dough in an enclosed space. In future bakeries, I intend to design a more sophisticated version of this indoor/ outdoor setup.

Change as a constant

Fundamentally, I think I love the elements. This 'hot and cold' thing is good for me. My soul isn't attuned to sameness, and I need change to keep it happy. The seasons provide this, particularly when one bakes outside. This constant change, I think, is also the reason I have continued to bake for the past thirty years.

Any one who knows me will attest to the fact that I am deeply attuned to total reinvention from time to time, and that I do it on a fairly regular basis.

For me to have been able to sustain myself as a baker for such a long period is testament to the fact that natural baking, in the elements, offers change, a kind of daily process of problem solving; in short, baking has a mental attraction that simply can't be replicated any other way that I know of.

Which brings me to the subject of the title.

I've been talking to people all around Australia over the past few years; plenty of you can't get to the Hunter Valley for a day or two, but you really want to learn sourdough in a hands on way. You know about what I do, and really just want to learn the basics of the craft, first hand, from someone who isn't full of hot air and limited experience.  Many of you have indicated that you are inspired not only by my methods, but also by my methodology; ways I am learning to remove waste from the baking business, simple and cheap ways to get 'off the grid' on every level; techniques to help people consider ALL the breadmaking inputs and outputs, and to make environmentally sensible decisions around each baking practice; and mostly just to bring baking proper bread back to the people.

It appears my ideology, my experiments, my successes and my failures over many years have all struck a chord; especially of late. The planets are aligning in all these endeavours. People want to investigate low tech solutions to all manner of enterprises. People want to build local networks and utilise what they have. They want to reduce food miles, make stuff from scratch at home, or to know the person who made it. They are fascinated by what can be done with 'third world' technologies, with collaboration, with an 'artisan' mindset.

People are needing to knead! The artisan baking community have been reinventing bread, one workshop, one loaf at a time, for many years now. I began my personal and professional journey almost three decades ago, and the recent embrace by 'the people' has been very encouraging.

Many of you have come to a 101 workshop and have ended up owning a bakery! (You know who you are, and I do wish all of you well!)

Hitting the road Punning

I have been encouraged by you to take the next step.  Most of you just want me to keep baking for you here in the Hunter Valley every week, and while it's been very difficult to 'peel' me away from the baking lifestyle, I gotta say the baker needs a ‘rest’ from ‘kneading’ to make his bread. He wants to make his dough while on the go.  While I know where my bread is buttered,  it's your bread I'm interested in. Specifically, how it's made, and where!

I want to come to your town and show off some tricks I've learned this last thirty years or so. I want to speak, to share my lifetime's passion directly with you. I want to come to where ever you are, and to show you the tricks of the trade, first hand. And I want to hear all about your place, your town, your region while I'm there. I definitely want to meet you. 

I've been looking into ways of baking that are so simple, so basic, that absolutely no electricity is required.  I'm creating a mobile, totally off the grid baking classroom, which can be brought to your town, your suburb, your area, your market, and which can practically demonstrate the baker's craft with minimal fuss. 

I can do demonstration workshops at your event.  I can run half day, semi 'hands on'  workshops where people get to bake some bread to take home. I can also run full day and multi day baking workshops where you get to make the dough completely from scratch and then bake it. With the trailer I'll be bringing, I can do this pretty much anywhere. I’m going to build a mobile, Bush Bakery MkII. It will be for teaching how to bake.

So, these workshops will be focused on Bush Baking, using techniques not dissimilar to Australia's original bakers. Minimal, low tech refrigeration, no electricity, no running water. Just beautiful, hand made woodfired sourdough bread. Baked in the elements, come what may. It's seat of the pants baking at it's finest, and I want you to come and be part of it, wherever you may be. There will be triumphs and there most certainly will be failures. But no matter, I guarantee you and I will both learn lot every time, and that neither of us will ever forget it!

The route so far:

I'm heading South from the Lower Hunter Valley of NSW in June this year. The plan is to head (initially) along the coast, with possible stops in Sydney, Wollongong, and Berry; then inland to Canberra, and the Bendigo area; then on to Melbourne, Adelaide, maybe a stop around Ceduna, then across the Nullabor to Esperance, Albany, Margaret River, Perth,  Kalgoorlie; and than back again with some diversions along the way. The idea is to run Bush Baking workshops for small, medium and large groups of people wherever I can. I want to tag into events which may suit this teaching format, and I want to use local knowledge along the way to really connect with each region. Things like local shows, field days and markets. If the idea works, I'll do a similar one next year, only this next time I'll head north. It's a big country! 

It would be great to hear from people in some of these places between now and then. If you would like me to teach your group, or in your town, or at your event, I'll be on the road from June to  September this year. There is still quite a bit of flexibility in the time and exact route of my journey, so if you reckon I really should hook into something you have planned, then talk to me! I'm all ears! In coming weeks I will be busily tieing down dates and locations, so  watch this space for developments. If you would like to discuss things with me my number is 0409 480 750. Please feel free to call.