Denison Street a year on

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

(this article comes from my blog post of October 2012)

I thought it was high time I reported on how our little venture was traveling along in the wilds of Newcastle West - it's been about a year since I was smuggled in the back door and allowed a bit of kitchen space at Wesley Mission's then unused facility.

 Time flies. It's good to have a look at where we were and where we are now.- when you are in the midst of it, things seem to stay fairly still, but when you step back a bit you can see where things have moved and where they haven't.

Back in November 2011 I was given access to a kitchen which at that time had no retail facility. You may remember that through this blog and attached social media I put out the idea of a bakery which was run on a subscription basis - in other words, a bakery better connected to its customers.

By effectively pre paying for bread, our customers became stakeholders in the new enterprise. At the time, I had chosen to close our Hunter Street premises due to a perfect storm of unfavourable events. Greg Colby, who was the GM here at Wesley Mission, saw that our community based enterprise was the perfect fit for the abovementioned vacant Wesley Mission space. He held out a lifeline for us, and gave me the kitchen to re establish while the rest of the Wesley site was being renovated to incorporate the entire Newcastle Wesley Mission and it's multifarious operations. I moved in, did a few modifications to Wal, their oven, and set to work on the kitchen space to make it suitable for baking.

The Virtual Village Bakery idea was quickly established, and before I knew it I had 20 or so pre paid sourdough lovers whom I could bake fresh bread for each week. Through their support, I could keep myself afloat while I got the new premises running.

A year later, the number of subscribersto ourVirtual Village Bakery has doubled, and continues its steady growth. We also have one commercial subscriber who receives deliveries of huge 2kg loaves of sourdough bread each day for their bustling city cafe.

Our subscribers get their fresh bread every Saturday morning delivered to their door, and receive a regular bakery newsletter telling them of goings on around the cafe, and also the inside word on what is being baked for Saturday morning as well. Once people get their bread this way, they tend to continue, so we have not lost too many over the year. And our bakery manages to get a better idea of  how much bread to bake on the busiest day of the week. Our wastage level is definitely lower than normal retail bakeries as a result.

During this first year, we have managed to get lots of other things off the ground too. As mentioned in previous posts, we've renovated and re opened the cafe. Sourdough Cafe, as it has become known, has become a part of the Newcastle cafe landscape - and while it appears possibly a bit too left of center for some tastes, for many others it is a comfortable and welcoming place, a second lounge room, meeting venue or even office space, which the community in general have embraced. It definitely feels good to be here, and to be part of our vibrant and fascinating cultural mix in this post industrial city of Newcastle.

The lane from the street has been a work in progress too - Pete, our Urban Farmer, has lovingly transformed it into a kind of community garden, which provides us with salad greens and native berries, among other things. It is also a very comfy space to hang out and munch on lunch - there is sunshine and shade in equal measure.

We've called our lane Baker's Lane. For obvious reasons - and others which may become obvious as this blog continues...

Meanwhile, Joe, our erstwhile barista cum event coordinator, has started the Baker's Lane Market, which has begun to raise funds for Wesley Mission through regular Saturday morning market stalls. Our stallholders are selling homegrown food, hand made art, vintage wares and performance art (otherwise known as buskers). The stalls are free, and are attracting people to Newcastle West each week in growing numbers. We are really interested in re energising the precinct, as Denison Street is really a beautiful part of the urban landscape which up until now has been neglected and overlooked by a city as it abandons its industrial heritage for the suburban dream.

We have set up our second hand bookstore, which has actually become more of a library these days. Despite the fact that we sell books cheaply to raise money for Wesley Mission, we seem to be getting more books than we can sell from people who donate them to us.

The Cafe is also regularly used as a live alcohol free venue in the evenings, as well as for numerous community groups, including church and bible groups, meditation gatherings, storytelling evenings and even weddings! We have catered for lots of seminars and workshop events, and hold breadmaking workshops once a month.

In future posts, I'll be talking about some of the other things going on around the SourdoughBaker community enterprise, so subscribe to this very occasional blog to stay in the loop.

In the meantime, make sure you drop in to the cafe and make yourself known! We are a pretty happy mob here and are always interested to know what people are doing, so don't be shy! 

To follow the next story in this thread, have a look at:

SourdoughBaker goes bush!

SourdoughBaker Cafe heads further West

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

(this article comes from my blog post of April, 2012)

It's been five months since we've set up our bakery in the kitchen of Wesley Mission here in Newcastle West, and about six weeks since we opened our cafe doors once again.

It's Easter Monday today. It's been a crazy few weeks. I'm resting while the crew are keeping the easter punters fed and caffeined. It will be a busy day, with all our regulars finally having found us again after a few months in the wilderness without their favourite bakery.

The cafe is pretty much set up now, after spending the past five months slowly renovating, fitting out and decorating the space. Everybody seems pretty happy with the outcome - it's quite a bit bigger than our old digs on Hunter street, and we've had the luxury of space for the first time in years. We've created a lounge area and a front cafe kitchen, with large tables and lots of books on the walls - a biproduct of our fledgeling relationship as a social enterprise with Wesley Mission, our landlord and enterprise partner here in the wilds of the West End.

There has been a steady stream of great press about us since we've opened, with numerous blog posts, online magazine articles, and lately a couple of feature articles in the Newcastle Herald. The bread has been coming out very fine indeed, with Wal the oven almost achieving match fitness at last, after lots and lots of tweaking. Craig Miller, our erstwhile woodfired oven genius, has been sending me detailed designs of Bertha 2, and I'm currently raising some capital to have her built. She will fit nicely out the back under the awning, and will triple our baking capacity instantly. She should also give the bread a thinner, more colourful crust, due to her massive 'turbocharged' firebox (something Craig and I have been working on for over a year now). 
My offsider and baking buddy Ridley are counting the weeks till she appears with excitement, though it seems that she is taking longer to materialise than we would have thought. A bit frustrating, but these things always take longer than we wish, in my experience. Nonetheless, Bertha 2 will be more than a prototype, as her predecessor Bertha 1 was. And Wal, bless his old heart, will get to return to light duties once again.

Meanwhile, there is lots to do here in building and energising our community cafe. The blessing of working with Wesley Mission is that we have less pressure as a commercial imperative now - our brief is to set this enterprise up along the lines of a sustainable community and social enterprise - so while 'bums on seats' is the first priority, our big picture priorities can actually be allowed to progress at the same time. 
We have an awesome laneway here, which was once a parking lot for staff cars. We are working with a number of community groups to energise the space, so there will be outdoor seating, surrounded with edible gardens for the cafe, street art on the walls, and energy efficiency design additions, making shade and better use of available light. The great thing is there are people who have a passion already working on the project, and they will hopefully make a valuable addition to the whole through their efforts.

That's the nature of what we are trying to do here - and while we began it in Hunter street, it couldn't be achieved without a supportive partner with strong ties with the community to help it along. Wesley Mission has these ties, and they are very keen to see this project become a feature of the Newcastle landscape.

Every day is filled with possibility for everyone associated with SourdoughBaker Cafe, and that's exactly the way it should be.

For the next part of this story thread, have a look at:

Denison Street a year on


A perfect storm blows SourdoughBaker Cafe out of the water!

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

This article is from my blog of September 9, 2011)

There are times when things compound upon one another, like a perfect storm. SourdoughBaker Cafe has just been becalmed by one.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it...and the inverse also applies.

We're gonna have to move, though we don't know where just yet.
How could this happen? It feels to us like we've just hit our straps, after a year and a bit of getting our bread, coffee and food into people's mouths. Newcastle is telling us how much it loves us, we're getting great media coverage. Yet we have to close our doors next week. What gives? Pretty much everything, all at once. Here's a blow by blow breakdown of the perfect storm, as it happened to us:

Blow number one: Four weeks ago, the rooftop exhaust system stopped working. In June last year we replaced the old unit. Now the new one stopped too. The cafe filled with smoke, and it took us three days to repair. During that time, we could bake tiny amounts of bread in Bertha, very slowly. Otherwise, the shop would fill with smoke. The bread was VERY crusty, as a result. Tally up a thousand dollars in costs and lost sales, give or take.



Fire holes

Blow number two: Three weeks ago, the chimney leading to the rooftop exhaust system released a large clump of creosote into the rear chimney of Bertha, unbeknownst to us. This caused Bertha to overheat, as flue gases turned back into the firebox, thereby dramatically enlarging a small pre existing hole in five millimeter steel. 
The effect of this was to render Bertha almost unuseable, as the crusts on our bread simply charcoaled instantly, due to direct exposure to the flames in the firebox.
It took me another day to figure out what had happened, and another few hundred dollars in lost bread sales. And the cafe was still filling up with smoke as well. We managed to do a makeshift repair to Bertha, and clear the chimney. 
Back in business. Kinda. Bertha was still leaking, and baking bread with a cloudy crust. The oven doors had fatigued due to previous blast of heat, and had burnt off their seals. We would have to pull Bertha right down ASAP and install steel sleeves. This job had to be done with a cool oven, so we began to plan for a day's closure to properly repair Bertha.


Blow number three: Two weeks ago, the hot water system started to put pools of water on the floor. There had been a small leak, and we had purchased a second hand dishwasher some months earlier. Thus, on the day we closed to fix Bertha, we could fix the leak and install the dishwasher. A logical plan. 
However, upon closer inspection, we noticed that the old fashioned particle board laminate had actually rotted below the surface. Then we noticed the extent of the rot - a whole new side bench would be needed. And new plumbing.

Blow number four:  A week ago, a council visit highlighted the presence of cockroaches, which we had been fighting on a daily basis. Guess where they like to live? In moist particle board.  
The need to do this work urgently trumped the fact that the bank account was floating not far above zero at the time due to the previous repair issue. We allocated a Tuesday, and about eight people, to this working bee. Tally up another thousand dollars in lost sales. Might as well add another thousand in materials, including second hand hardwood, bricks, steel, paint, filler, fasteners, brackets and the like. Then add another seven hundred for plumbing work. 
Then, three days later, we were still not ready to reopen. K'ching...add another few thousand dollars worth of lost sales to the tally. (During this whole time, all our people and helpers volunteered their time - some of us worked for three days averaging twenty hours a day. I have to especially thank Serge and Tom, as well as our whole team - I have to say, we were magnificent). 
The job blew out, as these types of jobs often do, and by the time we could partially reopen, we were all totally exhausted. Me especially.

Blow number five (the killer punch): Then, on the Friday we limped to reopen, our landlord appeared with an order for back rent, totalling some seven grand according to his somewhat dodgy calculations. This had been a problem for us for some time, but we had been managing to keep it under control by paying our rent each week, plus a little extra when we could. As far as our long suffering landlord was concerned, this wasn't enough - and the recent repairs had not helped our case with the him either. He apparently required notice of the work being done for repairs, so that he could grant us 'permission.'

So if it IS broke, and so are you, what do you do?

Which brings us up to the present. With some seven thousand dollars over the past four weeks in added expenses and lost sales, a rent bill (much of it disputed, but that was for a later occasion in court) due at the end of next week, an exhausted team (did I mention we just lost two more staff in this period?) and still more renovation and repair work to do, we've decided to hit the pause button until we can find somewhere better to live. 
This landlord does not love us, even though Newcastle seems to. I worry about our neighbouring shops too, who rely on the daytime traffic we attract for some extra business. Who knows? Maybe the next tenant will be an even better cafe! 
Anyway, stay tuned - I'm working out a way to make bread for everyone again as soon as I can. The rest of our team are going to take a break for a month or two. Then we'll hopefully regroup, with some fresh energy and a better location and maybe a bit more capital behind us. In the meantime, thanks Newcastle for all the amazing support you have given us. All the equipment will be relocated and rolling again as soon as I can get it set up, including Bertha. All those who have invested time and or money, our investment is safe - kinda - just awaiting redeployment in more favourable circumstances. And down the track - well, let's just say that, God (and you people) willing, Newcastle will have its SourdoughBaker back.

For the next part of this thread of the story, have a look at:

SourdoughBaker Cafe heads further West

SourdoughBaker goes bush!

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Bakery Stories

It's about 5.30am, and I've had one of those nights. Daylight Saving Time has just started, and I'm looking out at a pre dawn mist which has settled over the paddock in front of me. Pretty soon the mist will start to thin out, as the warmth from the sun vaporises it. There are cattle about three paddocks away, black shadows through the creamy mist.

 It stormed last night - a wild, crazy electrical extravaganza which delivered Ginnie, Elke, Ruby and I unparalleled excitement as we all experienced it from different vantage points. Ginnie and I sat on the side verandah and watched, transfixed. The girls were mostly in their beds, wide awake, amazed by the random flashes of blinding light as bright as day, wrapped up in rolling thunder. From the verandah, we could see exactly where the storm was coming from, and hear where the thunder was. We could feel the rain just brushing against our skin from the relative safety of the corrugated iron roof which covers the verandah. We could feel the wind coming from the east and the south in mad gusts.
Back in downtown Islington, where we lived till only ten weeks ago, such a storm would have amounted to a smidgin of excitement and a possible power outage. We could not have watched it in a kind of visceral panavision like we did last night, nor could we have felt the elemental forces on our skin, or been as engaged with the event as entirely as we were here in upcountry Quorrobolong.

Everything here is a treat for the senses - the briskness of the mornings as the mist moves on to be replaced with stinging sunshine; the dry heat of the day, and the sunsets over the back verandah. Watching and hearing a community of birds, bees, cattle and kangaroos do their thing at any given moment. Smelling the grass and the cowshit and the eucalyptus oil all mingled in the air to create that quintessential 'country' smell.

The SourdoughBaker Goes Bush...
So what happened to the village baker? For one so attached to city life in Newcastle, how did I manage to find myself in such a geographically, climatically and culturally different world so quickly?

I guess I need to fill in a few gaps for you.

As you know, I do bread. And woodfired ovens. And I teach how to make this bread. And up until recently, I also did cafes. And I try to keep some kind of record of it all through this blog, and my website - infrequently, I admit.

In the process of doing these things, I find it inevitable that I either engage with the community, or a community unfolds and engages with me. I'm not sure if that's an 'either' or an 'and' situation - but it has become a theme anyway.

Community Enterprises have their drawbacks
I've run my businesses as 'community enterprises' for years. When we were at Wesley Mission, we did quite a few things which richly engaged with the community on various levels - markets in the laneway, community gardens, music nights, a book exchange, a community meeting space, weddings, parties and anything else we could get away with. When our woodfired oven was finally built and installed, we even planned to have community bake ins using the stored heat from baking. I've spoken about some of these things here in the past.
In the end, though, Wesley's Sydney based management tended to frown upon these things, and we would get the message through various channels that what we were doing was in some way upsetting the applecart.  As a result, these community building exercises were not good for our business - purely because Wesley Mission saw them as a risk.

The biggest risk of all was, in the end, Bertha, the woodfired oven. Once she was up and running, Wesley Mission's 'management team' terminated our licence agreement with four hours' notice. Why? They sited the aforementioned 'risk to volunteers' as the reason, as well as a 'breakdown of trust' - apparently I directly disobeyed a staff member by firing her up.

Asking me not to fire up an oven which I have been working on designing and building for over three years is a bit like asking a river not to flow. Or, more succinctly, a bushfire not to burn. It just won't.

A note on Bertha 2
If you would like to know more about the story of Bertha, there is plenty written and linked here. But without following all that, in a nutshell, she has been the obsession of Craig Miller and myself for the past three and a bit years. We wanted to design a high quality, high efficiency, clean woodfired baker's oven for the twenty first century. We wanted it to be the backbone of the village bakery. We wanted it to be off the grid, clean and green, and a delight for a baker to work. I have longed for an oven like this for many years, but could never afford anything like it - so I figured I would just have to let that idea go. When I met Craig and realised he was just as passionate about making woodfired ovens as I was about baking bread, I immediately asked him if he was up for a collaborative partnership to create such a beast. Craig, being cut from the same cloth as me, took about a split second to decide. Of course he was.

 And when I was asked to move my bakery to Wesley Mission by the then general manager, Greg Colby, my first question was: 'Can I put my new woodfired oven there when it's built? It's pretty huge.' The answer from Greg was an emphatic 'Of course. We will find a way.' By the time Bertha 2 was nearing completion, Greg was unceremoniously dumped by the Wesley Mission Management Team. I was then informed by them that I would need permission to do what I already had permission to do.   

The folks that protect Wesley Mission's property interests, after Bertha 2 had been commissioned, built and delivered, told me that Bertha would have to go, within days. I fired her up a dozen times in those days to no ill effect whatsoever - I needed to learn about her emissions, her flaws, and also how to actually bake with her. Yes, there were issues - but I had a small team of passionate designers and builders and even engineers ready to work with me on them. Despite this, Wesley Mission's property manager asked me: 'Which part of 'Get It Out' don't you understand?' 

Keep your head down
As anyone who has lived in Newcastle for a while knows, those who hold the power do what they do for various reasons, and the rest of us can only look on and hope that we get dealt some decent cards somewhere along the way.

And if we wish to be dealt any cards at all, it is better to keep one's head down. Do what you are told, and don't upset the applecart.

As many of my long suffering friends and family will verify, I am singularly not good at keeping my head down. And if you let an actual community have its head, as we did at Denison Street, it certainly won't keep 'it' down. This was evidenced when we were removed from the Wesley Mission premises - the community response was so strong that it crashed their website for two days.

So what happened to the vision?

Communities tend to take ownership of my enterprises - and I have encouraged that. I guess fundamentally I don't feel as though I own them, but merely convene their existence.

I put it down to being a punk in another life.

Allow me to elaborate - I found myself in a vibrant 'punk' community in Sydney during the early to mid 1980's.  We weren't punks in the fashion sense - it was more of an attitude, a way of 'doing life'. It meant that you engaged with anarchism - there were no masters and no slaves in the punk universe.

In my case, this proved to be a happy and creative way of living. Much was achieved with very little, including things like Radio Skid Row, a community radio station founded at that time, and which, I understand, still exists. We just did what we could with what we had - which wasn't much. But we did it together, and it worked famously well.

That period in Australia's history, and my experience within it, has profoundly influenced me. I unconsciously adapted our punk/anarchist protocols to suit various endeavours ever since - with mixed results.

The ethos has always been about doing what you think needs to be done, and doing it independently, with like minded individuals. A kind of collaborative, organic, slow cooked process - involving a fair bit of labour (much of it your own) and not much capital.

That was up until recently. I no longer subscribe to that universal methodology. Well, not so much, anyway. What has transpired over the years of reflection on those times is that sometimes, circumstances and events bring people together for a particular reason.
But you need the environment in the first place.
In the 80's, there was a confluence of things that made the energy occur - run down real estate in the inner city and thus cheap rent, a nascent  independent street media, the granting of community radio licenses, changing laws in pubs, a distant movement involving youth and so on overseas, a corrupt and entrenched state government with a subservient media, and a generally relaxed and therefore unprepared state of mind amongst the powers that be. These and other preconditions gave rise to the supremely creative explosion that was the inner city punk movement I've mentioned here. Those sorts of preconditions are rare - and nothing like them exist now.

These days efficiency, subservience and capital have well and truly triumphed over creativity, anarchy and ingenuity.

We all like things to work, a vision to succeed. People committed money and time to my vision, but it has taken a lot more time than other people actually had to realise any of its potential.

The reality is, the vision of a community enterprise, owned and run by the community, didn't work - practically or commercially.

The environment where the community enterprise was to be housed  - the place where the cafe could unfold organically -  needed to be owned by a not for profit protector. I believed this protector was Wesley Mission, but this was an illusion. Wesley Mission was simply in the business of gathering or maintaining resources, taking a cut, and choosing where those resources are to be allocated. Just like any other landlord is. They had zero interest in forming actual community partnerships. They did, however gain mileage in a PR sense by being seen to form them.

And what about the kids that worked with us? In the end, I attracted young people who just wanted to work at a cool place, with other cool people. They didn't really care about the vision. And they wanted above award conditions and pay rates, sick pay and superannuation. A nice resume entry and a decent reference, of course.

I tried to satisfy these things, in order to continue this vision - but it was an experiment that didn't work on an enterprise level. I think on a human level, it was a fabulous success, with people realising things about themselves, and about their environment, that were possible. And some of those people will go on to do great things.

Despite these small successes, I personally still have had to pay everyone back in hard cash; starting with the suppliers, then the investors who needed it, and grudgingly, the landlord from hunter street who bamboozled me with legal and illegal bullshit. I'll be paying everyone back for many years, I'm sure. If you need something from me and you feel I owe it to you, join the queue. If I'm still alive by the time it's your turn, I'll do my best to make sure your little bit has come back to you. Honestly. But if you want it yesterday, sorry. It's a work in progress.

So I guess the vision has had to be adjusted to reality a bit. It's still there, but I'm having to redefine 'community' - and how I interact with it.

What actually worked?
Okay - so much for the vision thing - collaboration, like minded souls, no masters and so on. Sometimes, sharing the vision is not entirely necessary. One just needs willing helpers. The back story of how we got the cafe open at the Wesley Mission in Denison street is a case in point. My vision, at that time, had taken a beating, and I was one stop short of becoming all bitter and twisted.

That was when I met Ginnie. Everyone else had abandoned me - my staff, even my family were holding me at arm's length - and understandably so - they too had invested in my vision, which seemed to have collapsed at the time. I had been gutted by closing Hunter Street, financially and personally. I was emotionally numb, because I had no option but to continue as best I could. So I was baking 'by subscription', and actually managing to keep my head above water in doing so (thanks in no small part to Greg Colby, who really did what he could to keep things afloat in difficult circumstances).
Then Ginnie pitched in, and gave me a hand - as did my youngest daughter Rosa, and Ginnie's two very young daughters. Between us we got the place refurbished and ready to become a cafe. And Ginnie has been there with me ever since.

I have learned that having a vision means owning it yourself - and if a few people can really commit to it, and evolve it with you, it has a better chance of succeeding.

Whatever happened to Sourdough Cafe?
Sourdough Cafe no longer exists. But the Sourdough still does.
These days, Bertha II and I are parked out the back of the Croatian Sports Club in Wickham. I begin to fire her up on Thursdays to bake fresh sourdough bread for everyone on Fridays and Saturdays. I make enough bread for our loyal customers - there are no orders, no coffee machine, no staff, and no sandwich press. Just bread.

The Croatian Club took us in when Wesley Mission kicked us out. We had no money to afford more salubrious digs at that time - frankly, it was a relief to have a home so quickly.

We immediately got the bakery resurrected so that we could create some cashflow to live on. Our plan was to build a cafe in an empty container adjacent to the FigTree Community Garden, and utilise the produce grown there in the food.
It was to be a Garden Cafe, demonstrating how seasonality, community and locality could work together to make a place where nourishment happens. Our enthusiasm for the idea of a cafe which utilised produce grown onsite carried us forward - and Ginnie started preparations for this while I got the bakehouse running.

But as we went along, it became clear that building a cafe in a container was more expensive and difficult than we had thought. A number of issues arose when planning the space - power, fire safety, water and so on. We also discovered that there were fundamental zoning issues associated with putting a cafe on the site. The more we looked into it, the harder it all became to actually do. Not just a bit hard - it was actually very hard, and it seemed as though there could be no shortcuts or workarounds. And, we discovered, there would be no lease - which was the reason our downfall  was so swift at Wesley Mission.

After a couple of months of false starts and frustration, Ginnie and I walked away from Sourdough Garden Cafe altogether. It was hard enough losing the cafe once - but even harder trying to create another one from scratch with nothing but goodwill - to find we had no security of tenure either. We just didn't have the energy to deal with all the issues.

Meanwhile, the bakery was finding its feet as a stand alone enterprise for the first time ever! I had no staff, no expectations of retail convenience from my customers, and no food or coffee to prepare. My loyal customers were coming each week to buy bread, and they were telling their friends where to find me. This meant that I could focus completely on baking with my woodfired oven. I realised that in two and a half decades of bakery life, I had always had a cafe to attend to. For once, the weight of coffee and food lifted from my shoulders, and I felt free and partly re-energised.

The bread became front and center. And it has improved enormously - helped by Bertha's mighty thermal mass, of course!

(Life at the Croatian Club is a whole other story, of course - and one that is brewing. But stay tuned for that one!)

And now, to the farm...and the family
After both the cafe and it's stalled remake were gone from our lives, Ginnie and I had to do some soul searching. Especially Ginnie - her life as a chef has extended for over two decades and two countries now. I don't think even she could tell you how many kitchens she has run or worked in.
Quite suddenly, she had her long term mainstay in the working world was removed. Like me, she couldn't just go and work somewhere else - being a chef was meaningless on its own  - creating food has to have meaning beyond the workaday world for her to be able to continue doing it. For both of us, and the children in both our families, our next step had to replace the place that Sourdough Cafe had occupied in our collective psyche, and to re-energise our souls, which had been battered as a result of all this. There had to be a truly compelling vision in order for some sort of collective healing and regeneration to take place.

We started to take some drives to the country, just to have a look around, and to clear our heads a bit. After a couple of journeys, Ginnie came across an ad online for a farm to let in Quorrobolong.
Neither of us knew where Quorrobolong was - and with a name that you have to say the same way when you are drunk as when you are sober, it had to be worth a look.

So we took a drive south, and 50 minutes later we were looking at a sign on a locked gate - 'Tipperary'. We jumped over, and walked down the blossom lined driveway. We looked at each other, both gobsmacked at the sheer beauty of this place.
Then we had a bit of a squiz at the infrastructure - a house, a barn, a swimming pool, a machinery shed, park like surrounds and an outlook that was completely uncluttered. The cows in the paddock wandered up to say hello, and we both instantly knew that this place was where we needed to be to continue on our journey together.

Since that day three months ago, we have relocated our little family here, and created a display kitchen in the barn, specifically for teaching. We've installed a small woodfired oven, and we've held our first of the new series of Sourdough 101 Workshops from the display kitchen. As the fourth venue for these workshops, this one is by far the best.

Our students were completely blown away by the surroundings.  And they got something more than a casual learning encounter - they got something of our lives, our passions. And they got Ginnie's food. Yes, it is very special!

Are we there yet?

Tipperary farm has offered us the opportunity to reinvent what we do around teaching, baking, farming and learning to live in a different way - connected to the earth and to the seasons and to the community. Our shared vision incorporates both the Village Bakery and the idea of working ecologically and sustainably with food and the resources it takes to grow and prepare it.

Ginnie plans to incorporate a series of special cooking workshops into the repertoire early next year, and to grow some of our own produce as well.
I am going to continue to bake, build better, super efficient woodfired ovens with Craig Miller, as well as to extend my workshops into new areas. We both want to make this place a model of what you can do to truly get 'off the grid'. We wish to engage meaningfully with local producers, and to demonstrate humane and sustainable animal husbandry practices. We want to do it all ourselves, and with like minded helpers - just like I did in the early days of the Sydney Punk scene.

We've called this new venture 'The Chef and the Baker'. Like us on facebook to keep up to date with specific happenings and news of how the place is progressing.

Making stuff is always a creative process - and in the bush, creativity is all around. It just happens in a different way to the city. Here, our shared vision is one where that process can continue for Ginnie, both of our batches of kids, and me.

The way I see it, Tipperary Farm has been a bit of a gift from the Gods of Hard Work - a kind of reward and a responsibility both at once. I'm good with that.

Check out our new series of workshops for the rest of the year. And make yourself known at the Croatian Club while Bertha and I are still there.

Oh, and did I mention? The bakery is going mobile very soon.     




SourdoughBaker Cafe Begins

Posted in Bakery Stories

There is so much hard labour that goes on behind the scenes in any foodservice business, and bakeries are up there in terms of 'back breaking heavy slog'. I have begun to seriously wonder if what I am doing at the moment, creating and establishing the SourdoughBaker Cafe, fits into this category.

Yes, another cafe bakery has sprouted, after a rest of over 6 years. I blame this website for getting me inspired to run a bakery one more time. In the process of putting all these recipes and stories and techniques together, I found myself making lots of bread at home, and thoroughly enjoying the act of doing (as well as documenting) it.

I also found myself designing a 'woodfired cafe friendly oven' with Craig Miller (of I wanted to design a really good oven to sole bake on, which was woodfired, and which could also be put to use in a cafe environment.. Craig was keen to make one, after a few long chats. He's an oven fanatic. Two fanatics meeting mutual satisfaction through design - who would have thought?

Many hundreds of hours of phone conversations later, we have an oven, in the flesh, for the new millenium. It utilises technology from many milleniums past, but cleverly, we hope. Or, as I like to say, third world technology as applied to the first world.



Bertha the woodfired oven at work

This oven, called (affectionately) Bertha, has now been built as a prototype, and we use it in the SourdoughBaker Cafe every day - not only to bake bread. Bertha handles all our chef's cooking too!

Sole Baking entices the baker to bake again...

'Sole Baking', or baking directly on the floor (sole) of the oven, has become a fascination for me over many years. I spent a fair proportion of my time when travelling dropping in on bakeries which operated using this method. Some of them were woodfired, like LaTartine on the Central Coast of NSW. Others operated using thoroughly modern gas fired 'setter' ovens, like at Phillipa's Bakery in Melbourne, who had, at that time, just installed a state of the art Electrolux setter oven, which could set over 600 loaves at once.

Sole bread bakingI had attempted sole baking at the Katoomba bakery, but it soon became apparent that special equipment and new skills would be necessary. Back in those days (and prices have probably doubled since - I investigated these ovens around the year 2000), a serious 'setter' oven (or specially designed oven for 'sole' baking) cost upwards of a hundred thousand dollars. Even a baby one would cost a lowly baker between twenty and thirty thousand dollars. At that time, I was tempted, but resisted this temptation. I planned the whole bakery process, in fact, and designed floor plans around the oven.  A complete refit of the bakery would be needed, and this cost about the same amount as the oven itself. So, despite my enthusiasm for the idea, sole baking would became a pipe dream.

That was, of course, until now. As a result of playing around with my backyard barbeque, I started to figure out the principles of sole baking. The bread I was making this way was just so much better than the bread I had been baking for the 'test recipes' on this website (using bread tins or trays in a small domestic electric oven). Not to say that there was anything wrong with the recipes, it was just so much more exciting getting the massive 'kick' you get when baking on a stone floored oven, without tins or trays.

So I guess you could say I became, once more, hooked to making bread. Now I had to find an outlet for this possible new chapter of my very long term breadmaking adventure.

And then there was a location...

At about the same time, I found myself hanging around an old mate, Mark Carruthers. He had a cafe on Hunter Street, Newcastle West, called Raw Alchemy. Mark's cafe was a haven for the 'seriously counter culture' of inner city Newcastle, as well as students, local lawyers and telephone canvassers. His specialty cafe and retail operation serviced Newcastle west's vegans, vegetarians, organic shoppers and local workers alike with tofu wraps, veggie juice, espresso and all sorts of organic goodies like rice, spelt flour and chickpeas. I sat in Mark's eclectic cafe and retail many times, and chatted with him about how we would fix the world, and at the same time make his cafe a 'kick arse' little destination. While it was obvious the Raw Alchemy Cafe had a loyal following, it was also clear that Newcastle West was not a booming metropolis with thousands of eager shoppers marching by on a daily basis. It was an area of Newcastle that got patched up after the earthquake, and then forgotten, as the suburbs and their megamalls became the preferred method of consumerism. I might add that both of us were keen to build some sort of community enterprise as a way of combating what we saw as the 'relentless march of the shopping mall'. We also were without access to serious capital, which is a prerequisite for a bakery of any kind.

I had good experiences building up cooperatives and associations in various incarnations before and after being a sourdough baker. If you gathered your capital (whether human or money) directly from the community you service, you are committed to that community. This made the cooperative model very suitable for a truly sustainable business, because a business that was close to its community tends to do better than one which is remotely managed. It seemed to us a community bakery style enterprise, based on low tech, green principles, might be workable in Mark's location. So we started having meetings about forming a food producers' cooperative with some local people. Things began to move ahead slowly.

We even bought a little gas pizza oven to play with. The toy oven

Then, after one of these meetings, Mark had an accident with a glass jar, and almost lost a finger. It put him completely out of action for a few months. With his business thrown into a state of 'unknown', he asked me if I wanted to try doing some pizzas there with our new toy oven, just to test the whole concept we were working up around a bakery cafe, managed by a cooperative. I agreed, and dived in, thinking I might be able to help out.

I don't know why I did this.

And then, there was the SourdoughBaker Cafe

After a week, it became clear that half measures wouldn't work. The whole place needed to be refreshed and reorganised before anything like a bakery could be installed. Having a vision for how it needed to be done, I offered to buy the business from Mark, so that he and I could move forward without treading on each other's toes. He agreed, and pretty soon our 'cooperative' was up and running - at least in an unincorporated sort of way.

I should mention that all this was done without any capital - a business plan was half written, and there were some people who had attended the meetings for the coop who were going to help out. We renovated, painted, drew up menus and bingo! We were in business - by the skin of our teeth. But if we wanted to continue, we would need help, equipment and some capital. 

Well, the help came and mostly went, as enthusiastic amateurs discovered just how hard foodservice is. Maureen Curran, one of the coop helpfuls, hung in there the longest, with the two of us working fourteen hour days to get the thing up and running. We couldn't afford to pay staff, as we had no capital and no substantial turnover, so we just did it all ourselves. Luckily, Maureen had done a bit of foodservice herself, and so knew what it was all about. What amazing stamina she had! The first couple of months were pretty tough, and I don't know how either of us survived!

Eventually, though, help started to trickle in. Craig fronted up with a proper (but tiny) woodfired oven, which he rented to us (theoretically - I don't think we actually paid much of the rent) while we finished designing Bertha. The landlord gave us a bit of leeway with the rent, and all the suppliers did what they could.

A talented young chef, Paul West, (lately a TV star!) walked in soon after, and got involved. Pretty soon, he put in some of his savings and paid for Bertha to be fabricated. Then he headhunted his girlfriend (well, not literally), Alicia Cordia, to be our barista. And what a barista! I am continually encouraged by the calibre of people who have been involved in this project - and it just keeps getting better all the time.

To follow what happens next on this thread of the story, have a look at:

A perfect storm blows SourdoughBaker Cafe out of the water!


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