Sunday, August 29, 2010

SourdoughBaker Cafe in Newcastle begins

The fledgling SourdoughBaker Cafe takes shape

As the last few and very infrequent blog posts promise, a new woodfired bakery in Newcastle NSW is slowly being born. Slowly? Well, yes, it has been rather slow. But it's also been very steady.

The Story So Far

We didn't have the luxury of having capital, you see - just a group of individuals with a desire to create something that Newcastle most probably would never see otherwise - a cooperatively run, ecologically sustainable food production business, which drew its ingredient mainly from local food producers. The business plan was being put together mainly by my friend Mark Carruthers and myself, al fresco, as it were.

After having lots of long and involved brainstorming sessions on the footpath outside Mark's old cafe, Raw Alchemy, in the heart of downtown Newcastle west, I started to get a bit enthusiastic about bakeries again, after having sworn I would never again be a bakery owner. The simple fact is, as I tried to explain to Mark, bakeries, from first hand experience, are relentless and unforgiving on everyone who gets involved with them, particularly owners, head bakers and everybody's families. They tend to run all day and all night, and when something goes wrong, the owners tend to find themselves sorting it out. Day and night. As owner and head baker for Quinton's Artisan Bakery in Leura for more than ten years, I know about the effects of sleep deprivation over a long term, and I was not keen to go there again.

But Mark convinced me (or perhaps I convinced myself) that this one would be different. A cooperative would own and operate it, drawing on my experience to make it a true Artisan Bakery. Sourdough bread would have to be its focus. And, having had some positive experiences with cooperatives in the past, I very much liked this idea. I had also worked through, in my mind and on countless scraps of paper, the perfect set up for a small bakery and cafe; over many, many night shifts at our Leura bakery, I had most of the practicalities established as to how to physically do it. The added challenge, to design it right from the start as a super eco friendly, wood fired 'sole' bakery (no bread tins, just cooking straight on the sole of the oven) just added to my growing excitement.  'Simple' became our mantra. Thus the 'bucket and bag' idea - a bucket of water and a bag of flour. That's the recipe, and that everything had to be this simple. Minimal machinery, no spreadsheets, customers who actually eat the bread themselves, simple but great tasting cafe style food, no employee (just members), and above all else, transparency and honesty as fundamental principles of the operation of the business. This lent itself to the idea that we should also aim to facilitate education and learning about artisan bread and food production, as well as use the whole exercise as a license-able technology so that other businesses could eventually adopt our ideas as cost effective solutions to a carbon cost world.

The problem we faced was how to get capital - having been financially ruined by the last bakery, I was in no position to dig deep. Mark had his business, but no capital either. 

A cooperative structure would enable us to gather capital from small investors, as well as human capital from people who were interested in high quality seasonal food production and artisan baking.

It's all about quality and not necessarily quantity, though as demand grows we aim to meet it. But one step at a time.

Small is Good

You won't find this 'bakery' producing a hundred different standard bakery items. It makes and bakes only sourdough bread and selected pastries. The bread is no ordinary sourdough either - it is made completely by hand, using my own 21 year old starter as its levain; it is slow proofed over a total of 36 hours, is finally 'sole baked' (on the stones of the oven floor without a tin) in a purpose built, hand made woodfired oven.

Paul's handmade snags
The small cafe makes slow cooked food based on simplicity and refinement, with seasonality, 'in house' preparation and the use of local produce as its centerpieces. Espresso is of course the final piece of the triple bill, with the same appreciation of the true barista's art evident in the beverage section. This is a true cafe bakery.

There's a bit more of the story of the cafe so far at or you can follow the link here.

The birth of Bertha the Woodfired Oven

Bertha, naked as the day she was born...
The idea was to build a bakery with an oven which utilised third world technology efficiently in the first world. We had very limited capital (none) and a desire to show other ways of doing things which could be both commercially viable and environmentally friendly. We wanted to get off the grid too, because we thought that the grid was actually impeding progress towards a sustainable energy system being developed, with its automatic channeling of all users into one or two fuels - gas and/or coal for electricity. I looked around, and there are some really cutting edge heating technologies which are also relatively green, but these were costly and required specialist preparation to use - so I decided that a good old woodfired oven was the way to go. However, our oven would have to be capable of replacing numerous pieces of kitchen equipment if it was going to build a case for itself in a real life commercial kitchen.

We incorporated a hotplate into the design, which makes it very useful for a cafe. The firebox for the oven and hotplate will also power a hot water system, thereby eliminating three or more pieces of common kitchen equipment - the oven, the cooktop and the instant hot water system. All of these appliances use lots of resources which are not really costed, as they are supplied by the grid automatically.

At present, our design handles just the cheffing and baking, which takes about 10 to 12 hours a day. The 'Cafe Bakery Oven Prototype' Craig Miller and I are developing is big, beautiful and I think aptly named as Bertha. She's had over 300 kilos of insulation added to her 500 kilo steel body since we've installed her, and she's starting to take up serious space in our smallish kitchen. Our chef, Paul West, is getting the unenviable job of crash testing the hotplate while I get to test the bakers decks. Craig gets to engineer a way out of our many issues, and it's very much a work in progress.

Having said all that, Bertha bakes damn fine bread, as well as roast lamb, pastries, cakes and biscuits. On the hotplate, she handles a mean eggs and bacon, garlic mushrooms in butter, vegetable fritters, sourdough toast and the odd burger or two - over breakfast and lunch each day. Already she's a very satisfactory unit, with improvements being made each week to make her faster and easier to use. We are also gradually 'tuning' her to eat less wood.

The Newcastle Food Producers Coop

SourdoughBaker Cafe is to be the retail and production facility for something bigger - the Newcastle food producers cooperative. This cooperative is being formed as an alternative to the standard business structure of a company or partnership. It is intended to become a sustainable business model, based on the artisan guilds of old.

The production of good, nourishing food needs to be a labour of caring, not an assembly line peopled with unskilled and unvalued workers. The vision for our cooperative is about putting our attention into nourishment rather than assembly lines.

As such, the principles of a 'guild' of food producers apply - attention to craft, application and enhancement of skill and technique, dedication to quality and a local knowledge come into play. So too does the appreciation and understanding of important things like slow food, organic agriculture, knowing and dealing with local food producers - these are all necessary prerequisites for our cooperative to function for its intended purpose.

These guilds were also places of technological innovation, and of learning. As such, our coop will broaden its charter to include both of these elements - to find innovative ways to utilise limited resources, and to teach and be a place for learning the crafts of fine quality food production.

I will expand on the cooperative model in future posts, as there has been a lot of interest locally in what we are doing here, and how it will work practically. And of course, like any community based enterprise, we are currently busy introducing ourselves to the community, and they to us.
Stay tuned. I have a lot of news to get out to you....

So much, in fact, that I've started a new blog dedicated to the subject of the SourdoughBaker Coop. Guess what? It's called Have a look, and follow!


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  2. Covering the dough and allow it to ferment for an hour....... After fermenting, then knock the dough down and knead once again.........Scaling to the desired size.Bakery Equipment