An Introduction to Artisan Bread
The key ingredients in a loaf of sourdough are a scoop of science and a dash of romance, discovers Emiko Davies as she explores artisan bakeries in New South Wales.
When it comes to artisan baking, the favourite by far is sourdough. Made with simple ingredients, a long fermentation process and naturally occurring yeasts and cultures, the result is a long lasting, naturally delicious bread, packed full of flavour. There really is nothing like a properly made, fresh loaf of artisan sourdough bread. Crunchy and brown on the outside, soft and springy inside, that slightly sour aroma, it’s the perfect vehicle for good butter, olive oil or homemade jam, or for mopping up the remnants of a good meal.
Paul Allam from Sydney’s Bourke Street Bakery says, “Baking is part science, part stoneground milling and part river-running romance. But it’s not the romance that will keep your baking consistently good, it’s the science.” It certainly seems that romance is one of key ingredients to starting an artisan bakery – some have fallen in love with an old woodfired oven, others are drawn in simply by a passion for feeling that soft, sticky dough between their fingers.
It all begins with a simple few, good ingredients. Quality stoneground organic flours such as those from the Demeter Farm Mill, part of the Wholegrain Milling Company, is a start. Based in north-western NSW, the family business dates back to 1984, when Wendy Neale, a long time allergy sufferer, began milling organic grain in her own kitchen to improve her health. Realising that there would be others looking for high quality, stoneground whole grains, she took a risk and established the Wholegrain Milling Company. Today the Neales supply their traditionally-milled, natural, nutritious flours to wholesalers, independent bakeries and retail customers alike.
The simple ingredients needed for a good sourdough bread are not only behind the philosophy but even in the name of Flour Water Salt Organic Sourdough Bakery in Bowral in the Southern Highlands. Run by Joost Hilkemeijer and wife Kirsty, their artisan bread is made with a ten-year-old mother culture, organic stoneground wheat, pure Australian sea salt and purified water. The naturally leavened, cool fermented dough is handshaped before being baked in a woodfired oven fuelled by sustainable, local timber off cuts. Joost also looks after the artisan bakery part of the café owned by his brother, Jelle Hilkemeijer, the iconic Berry Sourdough Bakery and Café, in Berry near the South Coast. It was in the late 90s when the Hilkemeijer brothers, seeing a gap in the Australian market, began experimenting with sourdough baking and got hooked. Repairing a run-down heritage cottage was the next step and today Joost bakes a range of 15 different types of sourdough breads, along with handmade pastries and cakes to keep up with the demand. So popular are the Hilkemeijer-baked products that a second Flour Water Salt is opening up in Milton, while the Milkwood bakery, designed as an offshoot of Berry Sourdough Bakery and Café minus the café, is just up the road on Berry’s main street.
Another equally passionate bakery story is that of Brent Hersee and Jennifer Ingall of Hominy Bakery in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. Back in 1988, Hersee and Ingall opened Blackheath Bakery, their first artisan baking venture, where their potato sourdough loaf had a following of its own. Then they turned to Hominy Bakery in 1998. Today they still use the same mother culture nurtured from Blackheath Bakery times to make their signature sourdough bread, a long 10-12 hour job for each and every batch. Their bread and homebaked goodies are made with stoneground organic flour and seasonal produce, such as their own homegrown fruit or other ingredients brought in by customers bartering their produce for freshly baked bread.
Sydney has no shortage of excellent artisan bread options. One of the best known is the long-standing Brasserie Bread, which began back in the 80s as an idea of Tony Papas when he opened Kings Cross’ Bayswater Brasserie. After a trip to San Francisco to discover the ultimate loaf of bread, an organic sourdough starter was made, and consequently also the first loaf of Brasserie organic sourdough bread. It was 1995; that same starter culture is still used for each loaf today. Officially formed in 2000, Brasserie Bread has always been dedicated to artisan traditions. Their handmade pastries, cakes and delectable breads can be found at the Brasserie Bakery cafés and if you fancy dabbling in a bit of baking yourself, check out their baking school for kids and adults alike.
As they say at Sonoma Bakery, “True inspiration comes from humble ingredients,” and it could not be more fitting when talking about artisan sourdough bread. One of the more romantic beginnings, Sonoma Bakery started with a bit of nostalgia and the spotting of a run-down 150-year-old country bakery. Having never even baked a loaf of bread before, Andrew Connole and his brother Christian made a trip to San Francisco’s renowned bakeries (“Sonoma” is a tribute to the Californian county that inspired their dream bakery) to learn the art of sourdough baking. They came back with a passion for sourdough and even some sourdough starter from the famous Tartine bakery. Their first sourdough loaf was baked in 1998 and today they supply to a dizzying list of Sydney’s A-list restaurants and providores.
Further north in Byron Bay is Heart Breads, an organic, woodfired bakery where husband and wife team Simon and Rachel are focussed on running a sustainable, artisan business. The two woodfired ovens hold a place of pride and joy in the bakery. Hand-built from remnants found in garage sales and fired using wood from clearing sites in NSW (they have also implemented a tree planting program), the idea was traditional and artisanal but low impact. Here, everything is handmade, right down to each and every form of bread, and they stay local with the additional ingredients used in bakery items – eggs, bananas and pumpkin come straight out of their garden, while neighbours at the markets such as Summerland Olives and Rainforest Foods supply extras. Their famous corn bread made with organic polenta is a favourite of Steven Snow from Fins restaurant.
Emiko Davies is a food writer and photographer who, after spending seven years in Tuscany, is now based in Melbourne with her sommelier husband. She has contributed her food knowledge and keen eye to publications such as The Canberra Times, Maeve Magazine and Australia’s first magazine dedicated to cheese, The Cheese Mag, and she eats her way through restaurants and cafes for some leading food guides. She has a thing for historical cookbooks, regional Italian cuisine and sustainable, good food. Follow her on Twitter @emikodavies or on her blog at emikodavies.com