Headed for the Hills
The story so far:
Some things just have to happen. 'Sometimes, something's just gotta be done, and you don't have time to see if there's a rule applyin' to it' - Huckleberry Finn
Back yard bakery business. If you're thinking about a backyard bakery - this one really was!
We went from a bakery in the back room, to a bakery underfoot. But all things change.
The Baker's Cafe, Leura, circa 1993.
This bakery story has many twists and turns, and I guess this particular one was 'the big one'. Over many night shifts at Clovelly, I dreamed of locations, imagined us living in them as I baked. One night it was somewhere else in Sydney. Another it was Byron Bay. Then Melbourne. Bathurst. Eventually it became the Blue Mountains.
The Blue Mountains gradually seduced us, because we had some family there, and an opportunity immediately presented itself in the form of a cafe on the main street of Leura. We also liked it because there were some great alternative schools there for our sprouting family. And it was affordable - a house there was half the price of a house in Sydney.
I bought the Owl's Nest cafe from Rafael, a family friend at that time, who had owned it for the past half a dozen years, and had grown tired of it. Immediately we set to work, doing an ambitious total refit, utilising Rafael's not insignificant carpentry and design skill. Pretty quickly, he had enlisted a local army of tradies and sparkies to help transform this tiny, tiny cafe (just under three paces wide and fifteen paces deep - it was a very narrow and long terrace style shop, adjoined on one side by a newsagency, and on the other by a kitchenware store).
Rafael was a very bright guy, and I learned so much from him in those early months of running the new Baker's Cafe. His food knowledge was exquisite, and his ability with some unusual Japanese woodworking tools was equally amazing. The guy was a true craftsman in everything he did, and the Baker's Cafe benefited greatly from his approach. And, he had read and memorised so many Escoffier recipes and techniques it boggled my mind. I was just a dumb baker, after all.
I purchased a small pizza/pie oven, and a mixer; we built timber counters and shelves from recycled flooring, I had an espresso machine I brought with me from Clovelly (thank God for that machine!) and some refrigeration, and we somehow managed to shoehorn in all this equipment and 30 seats into the space. It was cosy, but functional.
Vanessa and I and our small children moved into our new house up the hill a bit further at Medlow Bath, and within a month I was ready to open the bakery/cafe. Vanessa thought up the name 'The Baker's Cafe', and designed a logo for it. I was exhilarated by the whole thing - and excited that I could finally do my own thing, legally and with my own ideas and principles. I was really brimming with excitement. Every day now was an absolute adventure, a treat, as I was living 'the dream'.
The dream changed at a certain point. But for now, the sourdough world was my oyster, and I intended to sup deeply.
Initially, I would ride my mountain bike from Medlow Bath each day to begin the bake at 5am, so that Vanessa could use our only vehicle for getting around - Medlow Bath was a good ten kilometers from Katoomba, which was the only village with a proper bunch of shops, a supermarket and so on...and Leura was another five kilometers further down the hill. So with one car in the family, and my long term addiction to cycling, it made sense to cycle to work.
I would leave Medlow at 4.30 am, when it was pitch black and freezing cold; I had to ride along a part of the main western highway that had no streetlights, and which was in many places single lane. Playing amongst the trucks, I used to call it. I got sandwiched quite a few times as a result of those trucks - and learned how to go cross country because of it. Somehow, I would arrive (!) at the Bakery half an hour later, invigorated and ready to bake. Still very much alive, despite the massive trucks I narrowly avoided each morning, thundering down the narrow Great Western Highway - and now I look back, I have to say that there must have been angels hovering above me some mornings!
Nonetheless, each day I would begin the bake with a totally creative mindset - and of course many wonderful (and equally many disastrous) breads and pastries found their way onto the shelves at that time - and, pretending to be a virtuoso baker, I attempted on a daily basis to never repeat myself. I was free, and I could do what I liked. I would do rainbow breads, crocodillos, croissants, deeply stinky rye sourdoughs, pizzas, cheescakes, light loaves, seeded loaves, whatever I wanted or could think of. Failure was the price of carelessness, and I learned to be precise and careful. Nothing hurts a baker more than a load of crappy bread to dispose of...and I managed to cause myself much pain, as I learned to work without nets on the trapeze of sourdough breadmaking.
I would devour new books (another neighbour in Leura street was the wonderful Megalong Books, whose well read owner, Tom, and his staff, regularly dropped in with new and different bread books for me to digest) about sourdough bread from around the globe. I became adept at translating imperial recipes to metric. I became adept also at shortcuts - some of these books were so arcane as to be impossible to replicate in the real world - but to this day I have kept every one of those books, even the bad ones. No other subject in my reference library has had such a long shelf life.
Eventually, of course, I settled into a pattern and developed some 'regular' products - and my customers appreciated the practicality and predictability of this approach. It's my nature to get bored quickly, but these crusty and trusty stalwart breads from my new bakery would go on to become people's favourites for many years to come. Many of these recipes have found their way into this site, and people tell me every week how good they are/were...
Leura is an interesting town. They say that when you have lived in the Blue Mountains for twenty years or more, you are considered a local. We never got that far. We did get to thirteen years - so I guess we were two thirds local. But thirteen winters is still thirteen winters in the Blue Mountains. Every one gets colder, despite our best efforts to make this environment liveable. So the locals are, if nothing else, a testament to tenacity. It takes resilience to face temperatures which won't reach dual figures celsius any day for six long months at a time. Particularly if you come from Aussie coastal stock like I did.
Leura also attracts more than its fair share of writers, intellectuals and dreamers. They come because of the romance of the cold climate.
They leave because of the reality. And it's hard to earn a living - or it was then. I'm not sure how the internet has affected this, though I expect there are some seriously viable writers residing in Leura to this day!
As such, we were never short of an idealistic treatise (or two) first thing in the morning at The Baker's Cafe. There were Sufists, Jehovas, Beat Poets left over from the 60's, Existentialists, Ferals, Anthroposophists, Vipassna meditators, Hippies and Lifestyle Writers in abundance. Throw in some emigres from Advertising, and some exiles from Finance, and thus, every morning promised more oblique conversation than a baker has the mental capacity to absorb.
But I loved and craved it all. I would work the pie oven, and then the coffee machine, with Rafael doing juices and breakfasts, par excellence, each morning. Our little routine became very popular. I had to make a decision - meet the demand for the bread, or put try to put more seats in for the bums.
I decided to go with the bread, because we really did have limited options in regards to fitting more people in to the tiny space. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, I might have been better to squeeze more people in. I had no idea how much a 'proper' bakery would cost!
Anyway, I wanted to bring our old Clovelly mixer in - it was what's called a 'two bag' machine, meaning it could handle two bags of flour at a time. But it was three phase, so I would have had to get the place rewired to accomodate it - and it was pretty big too. We would also have had to take out the front door frame and possibly the front window to get it in. The 'Tubuntia' (that really was the brand) mixer would therefore stay at Clovelly, though it was quite a rare and excellent 'one arm' machine, perfect for the type of bread I was making (though I didn't know it at the time).
Instead, I bought a basic Pizza mixer - one bag capacity. It would have to do. I wore that poor mixer out in just under two years. It was working from dawn to almost dusk seven days a week - like me - but I'm still going...machines are not as reliable as humans.
Next, I bought another oven, the same as the one we had in Coogee - because I knew we could squeeze it through the front door. Now I had 'capacity'.
My 'Op Shop' bakery was on its way.
I pulled out half the seats, allowing the kitchen / bakery to fill it up, and re-did the menu to suit a proper bakery and the things that a bakery did best.
I hired staff - Rafael and I were working longer hours than we should have, and more and more people kept rolling in every day to try our wares. A sense of panic encroached us each morning, particularly on weekends, as we dealt with our sudden success. It seemed that those first six months were consumed with job interviews and 'dear john' discussions with people who didn't quite earn their keep.
Eventually, we had the bare bones of a team. We were a happening business - our bread was the talk of the town, and we also had the local coffee market cornered too - people really appreciated'big city' espresso, so it seemed. Every day we pumped out 3 or 4 hundred coffees and about the same number of breads.
Rafael eventually headed off for a career as a high end woodworking professional lecturer in Tasmania. The bakery and cafe continued to grow, and on weekends it wasn't uncommon to see queues stretching out the front door and down the footpath - much to the annoyance of the newsagent next door, who considered the footpath to be his domain - for coffee and croissant. The legend of the place continued to grow, and eventually we became a 'destination' for Sydney folk, who craved the weekend mountain (read 'cold weather') experience.
Leura at that time didn't do weekends. Grudgingly, it accomodated Saturday mornings. But Sundays were out. Leave that stuff to commoners, like Katoomba. On Sundays, Leura was locked shut. You want something to do? Go for a bushwalk.
We decided that Sundays were an opportunity to break the entrenched local bakery's monopoly on the local business - I figured that they (the locals) would be happy to buy bread on Sunday mornings, which at that time couldn't happen. Sure enough, they loved it. So too did the Sydney daytrippers. The Baker's Cafe absolutely boomed.
Within a year, every business in Leura was open on a Sunday, most of them reporting it as their biggest day's trading of the week. I'm not sure if I created a monster there, or brought Leura into the twentieth century. Either way, it meant seven days a week work and / or responsibility for me, for the next decade and a half.
This growth and expansion continued, unabated, for the next six years. Success contains within it a continuously restorative pill, thus allowing layer upon layer of success to build upon the last. The pill, in itself, isn't dangerous at all, until it's mixed with a chemical commonly referred to as 'ego'. Then, the pill goes from 'innocuous' to 'lethal' in rapid time. And there are many traps for the unwary - all of which I tripped upon, in my quest for whatever it was I was questing for.
Stay tuned to find out!Here's the links forward and backwards for this story:
Happy Sourdough Baking!