Perth and the enormous west

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I had never been across the country before. Everybody tells you how big this country is, but somehow it just doesn’t compute until you get down on the ground and drive it.

Western Australia typifies what people mean when they talk about ‘big’. After a few weeks I began to get just a bit blase about covering 700 plus kilometers a day - it became like popping into town for the groceries. The expanses of sheer flatness do something to one’s sense of perspective. I kept staring off into the distance, unsure why the distance seemed so very much further away than I had ever imagined possible. I’ve spent pleny of time way out west of NSW and Queensland, where wheat extends as far as the eye can see in every direction, but somehow that didn’t compare to this. This country is somehow bigger and flatter and further than anything I had experienced before. It was mind bendingly big.

The bottom left hand corner of the country.

After traversing the continent, I had arranged to have a couple of weeks of free time so I could explore the west coast a bit and catch up with a good friend and long time collaborator from back east who had relocated to Perth this last year. We headed down the coast, all the way around to Albany, camping and cooking and scouring each town for whatever seemed worth scouring for.

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There were some pretty decent bakeries on route - Margaret River Bakery was booming, and it was great to see what’s happening in the west, bakery - wise. On a separate stop earlier though, at a place called Riverside Roadhouse at Bannister (out in the desert) I walked into a full sourdough bakery. You could have blown me over. Their bread was exceptional, especially when one took into account that here was a proper sourdough bakery at an ordinary roadhouse in the middle of the desert!

After covering the bottom corner of the state, we headed back to Perth for a few days’ urban exploration. I set up camp at a caravan park not far from Perth CBD (where else in Oz do you get a caravan park not far from the CBD?) and was introduced to some of the things that make the place liveable; the greek deli and bulk foods store Kakulas Brothers in Northbridge, Fremantle’s markets and bookstores, Subiaco grower’s market, and some of the community gardens which pop up here and there.

While country WA was bigger than I expected, Perth was smaller. It’s like it really WANTS to be a city, but just hasn’t quite figured out how to actually be one yet. Nonetheless, it was a place I found pretty easy on the eye, in general, with some nice little pockets of specialness thrown in. Not sure if I could live there longer term - there was just this almost overwhelming feeling of ‘suburbanness’ about the place. I ran away from the same sort of feeling when I was a teenager and have never really gone back.

Back into wheat country

Having soaked up all my free time, I headed east again, back into the wheat country not far from Perth. I dropped in on my old friend Arnaud, from York Olive Oil in York. Arnaud studied with me a few years back, and has created a micro bakery at his olive pressing facility there. He has built his own Alan Scott wood fired oven, as well as assembled one he had specially imported from France. Arnaud is a fascinating character, and his breads are absolutely bang on.

While we were chatting, Arnaud, at about 70 years of age, bounds up a couple of huge tractor tyres strategically positioned behind an enourmous flying fox that he has made for kids (and brave adults) at his olive plantation. He jumps on his flying fox and whizzes off down the hill. My own fearlessness was strangely absent on that day, and all I could do was watch and hope that by the time I was Arnaud’s age my body would be as agile as his. It certainly isn’t right now - but I’m allowing some room for possibility on that front.

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Next day I arrived at another baker buddy’s micro bakery at Pingelly, just down the road. The Bread Wright, as Ed is known locally, supplies lovely loaves to local business and markets. He works with the locally sourced Eden Valley flour, and will soon be building himself a small wood fired oven. He and his family live in a straw bale home he and his partner Lou built over many years. They really do live well, with much of their food coming from their own gardens. The workshop gathered keen bread folk from many miles away (people think nothing of driving a couple of hundred kilometers around here). Keeping up my record of having rain follow me everywhere, it rained on and off all day. Our little group managed to keep ourselves mainly dry, and the workshop was heaps of fun. The bread we baked was less than amazing though, and so began my introduction to the mysteries of ambient baking.

Ambient baking is a thing, you see. There are schools of thought which believe that whatever temperature we have as bakers should dictate what we do with our dough. This in turn means that if it’s hot, we get a nice short baking shift because everything goes faster in hot weather, while when it’s cold our shifts will take much longer as things slow down in winter. Some bakers who adhere to this principle also adjust their formulations to try to mitigate.

My process is the opposite. I usually work with constant formulations and times. I use refrigeration to control dough temperatures - but on the Bush Bakery my refrigeration was sub standard at this point. I didn’t realise just how much it was affecting things.

Too many variables

When I was planning this trip, I knew the safest time of year to make bread without much in the way of cooling was winter. I was optimistic that my own version of a Coolgardie Safe would be cool enough to hold my starter and my dough for long enough to be workable in a teaching setting.

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This workshop was the beginning of a slowly dawning truth - and only now that I’m sitting here, back on my home turf on the East of the continent, can I see what was happening in some form of entirety.

The bread we made at the workshop rose, in parts. And in parts, it did not. So it was like a kind of roller coaster bread. Instead of having a nice, curved upper surface, it was like up hill and down dale. Some of the loaves also began to break down - as they do when the dough becomes over ripe. This meant they were too far along the fermentation path. Acids excreted as the dough ferments gradually become stronger, and they break the gluten bubbles created during prefermentation.

I had been counting on cool weather as my means of controlling what happens with my dough to this point. This cool weather had provided me with the ability to make dough the night before the workshop, safe in the knowledge that the dough would keep until we were ready to process it at the workshop. Or so I thought. My attempt at cooling via evaporation (my ‘coolgardie’ fridge - I’ve written about it on this blog numerous times) had thus far failed to make much of a dint on the outside temperature, so all I had left was the weather. Which changes, hourly.

I was also trying to get my head around the very alkali water there was in WA. Everywhere I went, I would taste the water just to get an idea of what was happening. In WA, the water table is largely set on top of clay, so the water tastes very different to the more neutral water back east. I had to put this fact into my leavening mix, as I knew alkalinity would affect the way my dough fermented. The water was ‘hard’. It was very mineralised, and I think this fact was playing into how my usual process of fermentation worked.

So I had two issues to deal with that I had identified so far. Like anyone who has attended a sourdough workshop with me knows, when you have things going badly with your bake, you have to change one thing at a time in your efforts to solve a problem. If you try to apply multiple solutions at once, you will never know which one may or may not have worked.

The scope of my problem emerged slowly. I had numerous possible issues, and because of my general state of movement, I actually had no consistency in my baking practice at all. I was using local flour, local water and local weather. All these things changed wherever I was, so assessing what might be the problem was going to be difficult. To make matters worse, I was having mixed results each time I baked. The issues I was experiencing were numerous and they were not consistent - I either had lumpy bread, porous bread, or great bread from bake to bake, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the results I had been getting.

By the time I got to Esperance, my next port of call, all these things were mulling around in my head. I was, it turned out, still quite a way off solving my problems with dough, water, refrigeration and flour. So while parts of this trip were proving to be a revelation to me, other parts were confounding. The tale unfolds over the next couple of posts…

Warwick Quinton