Why I became an Elemental Baker

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Yarns

It's funny how life throws all sorts of curve balls at you. How the best laid plans are still neatly folded in that shoebox under the stairs.

I know I didn't really have any burning desire to become a baker when I was a kid. I think I hankered to become a doctor, or a vet - and then life stepped in, and within a few years I found myself without a couple of parents - and as a teenager, being rapidly cut adrift from any semblance of stability caused there to be all sorts of subtle changes to the wiring of my brain.

Not that I could have cut it as a high level student anyway - my diligence during my teens was limited to making sure my bike had air in the tyres, or keeping my guitar tuned. Ask me to put in three hours' study every night and I would have found an excuse to go for a long ride, or to practice some guitar. I had no idea that being a vet was all about achieving high academic standards. I thought it was about caring for animals. 

At the end of high school, somehow I got pre selected for university, but I deferred in my second semester, thinking that I was keeping the path open should I have a change of heart. Nearly forty years later that university must still be holding a place for me, presumably (I jest - In those days you didn't have to pay for them! Now they have paying customers.)

I knew then that I would never go back - just that I wasn't prepared to admit it to myself at the time.

I have since resolved that universities stifle one's ability to think. There are those who remain convinced of their value to the intellectual life, but in a way, that proves my point. 

I hit the road, and I did all manner of jobs - the concept of a career was something that people spoke about in polite company. Needless to say, the sort of company I kept wasn't polite. People worked because they had to, at whatever job would have them. 

For a long time, the concept of following my dreams was a luxury afforded to others. Indeed, I didn't consider that this idea might possibly apply to me at all. I worked fitting tyres to wheels, or cleaning the inside of industrial exhaust systems, or selling magazine subscriptions door to door. I did labouring jobs, and sometimes, when I was lucky, I scored some semi skilled work, which paid marginally better. At some point I think I belonged to the storeman and packer's union. 

My only real motivation at this time was to be able to afford a place to live, and to have some drinking money. Not necessarily in that order.

Somewhere along the way, after keeping my sanity throughout all this by playing music at every possible opportunity, I discovered that the inner city of Sydney was my actual home, and I became a citizen of the tribe that lived there. That tribe broke all the rules, and I guess we all were living our dreams - but this would be putting too fine a point on it. We were just rejecting our other lives, in a reasonably visceral fashion. We made our own fun, and had as much of it as possible. Everybody was doing something, and it was either creative or illicit or downright illegal. Nobody judged anyone else - we just absorbed by osmosis all the influences that passed by us, and each one was assessed by whether it was considered to be fundamentally cool, or not.

Needless to say, there was a reasonably high attrition rate. Attending funerals was far more common than attending weddings. Indeed, I can't remember attending any weddings at all. Or baby showers, for that matter. I do seem to remember attending courtrooms reasonably often though. Finding reasons to not attend them was also part and parcel of life in the inner city.  

I think this time and place is where I got a taste for sensation. Up until that point, life had to be about survival. Moving to the inner city freed me of that thought pattern and allowed me to experience sights, smells, sounds and tastes - culturally, culinarily and environmentally. Living in Newtown, going down the street for Shawarma, or Burek; being aurally assualted by punk/noise bands at the Trade Union Club on Friday and Saturday nights; eating Turkish bread and having lentil soup on Sussex street because it was cheap and delicious; or the joys of mint tea at the Mali cafe in Darlinghurst.

Suddenly, but also imperceptibly, food took on a whole new meaning. My hunger for these new sensations grew, and led me to all parts of the Sydney ecosphere - to Cabramatta for Vietnamese, Marrickville for Greek, Leichhardt for Italian, Haymarket for Chinese and so on.

But food was secondary to music. Sound was the other sensation that was looming large at that time, and it was even more visceral than food. It got inside me, every day - I spent huge swathes of time with my sub tribe making new and exciting noises, and trying to find ways of recording and performing these noises with other sub tribes. This was something I could do; I couldn't really cook, but when I was making noise, something primal was happening that I couldn't really explain. It invaded my psyche in such a way that I simply ate and breathed it for a good few years - right alongside the wonderful foods I was also experiencing in that environment.

Needless to say, working 9 to 5 was never really an option after that. I mean, I did find myself doing 'regular work' in numerous later incarnations, but in every case I had to find multiple reasons to hold me to the rat wheel. And these reasons had to be beyond putting food on the table - I had to be involved with changing the world in some way, or serving a higher cause. I was rarely excited by the work itself - just the cause.

That was until I started baking bread. 

I'm not going to say that I passionately converted to becoming a baker overnight. It didn't happen like that at all. I just got my hands in the dough, and I liked it. The process of discovery, the successes and many failures, the uncharted territory, the science and the art, and above all else the sheer satisfaction that making a decent loaf of bread brought to a deep part of me - well, these sensations had not been part of my life since I was a punk in the inner city a few short years before.

Watching little Pyrex bowls of naturally fermenting dough rise in the sun in the windowsill of a flat in Waverley was quite different to watching Nick Cave and the Birthday party at the Roundhouse, I admit - but there was something in both experiences which galvanised me. It has taken me about a quarter of a century to work out what it was.

All the good people in the inner city of Sydney who created that hive of self expression and who forged alternate ways of living and thinking went on to become who they were going to become - and many of them are to this day either well known or well respected or both - but all of them who I have kept in touch with over the years agree that it was a melting pot, a transformational forge that took them from their middle class existences to something that was, despite its appearance, of a higher nature, It was the beginning of a personal journey which allowed them to flourish as people. They were shocked into becoming, so to speak.

I guess the analogy begins and ends there, because transformation is always deeply personal - but I have always thought that making great bread comes about through a series of shocks. Each shock is a minor transformation which culminates in the final 'kick,' when the ripened dough, having gone through a series of 'proofs', hits the hot oven and simply explodes. But the interesting thing is that through all the careful processes along the way, this final explosion forms the dough into a thing of beauty which goes on to nourish everyone in a way that is more primal and more satisfying than almost anything else you can eat.

My bakery journey is quite well documented, I suppose. I've gone from hand making little Pyrex bowls of naturally fermenting dough in a kitchen in Waverley to a reasonably large bread factory in Katoomba, and finally to a small trailer with a woodfired oven on the front edge of a bush retreat in Ellalong, in rural NSW. The first ten years of my baker's journey were all about ego and growth - getting more and more of everything, from bread tins and bakery stuff, to 'success' and reputation. The next five involved letting go, losing, involuntarily in most cases, much of that which I had accumulated. I let go of everything that I didn't need, and some things that I did as well. For a time, it looked like I would even lose a part of my body - I got very sick for a long time. That's another story, but it was a shock I needed to help to put things in order mentally. Somehow, through this process of destruction, I found that actually making bread was something I couldn't let go. My family always had good bread to eat -though everybody else missed out for quite a few years. 

The last ten years have involved a few ups and downs as well, but a guiding principle has been to resolve or rectify a great many of the issues that came with being that person who makes bread for their community. To do this, I have chosen to accumulate only what is necessary to do the job, and to test everything repeatedly as to its role in the scheme of things. If it remains necessary, it stays. If it doesn't, it has to go. In this way, I keep things light and tight. And it helps me stay sane.

In this way, my breadmaking process has been refined to the bare essentials - two hands, some benches, a woodfired oven, some wooden boards, and basic refrigeration equipment. I've made the whole thing as lightweight as I can - though it's still not as lightweight as I would like. If necessary (or possible), it can always be moved. 

At the same time, I've removed everything that is unnecessary from the ingredient list as well. I'm down to flour, water and salt. The other essential ingredient is as elemental as it can be - fire. And that fire is the kind you build and maintain yourself - none of this mamby pamby gas flame from out of a pipe for baking my bread. It has to be free of attachment, and to do this, one creates it oneself.

I looked at things in another way a couple of years back, inspired by my partner Ginnie; in flour, there is the element of air, through the formation of gluten bubbles to trap air. In water, there is another fundamental element - one which combines and changes itself with all the others throughout the process. In salt, we have the mineral element, that of earth. And then, the great transformer and purifier, fire. All of these elements go together to create bread. None can be removed. Nothing else is needed either. Except, of course, the baker. And a hunger that needs to be filled in the simplest and most elemental way.

And while that hunger exists, I'll be happy to nourish it in any way I can. 




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