I used to love family holidays as a kid. Every year, we’d drive down to Busselton and stay at a cottage in a beach-front ‘resort’ called Glenleigh, named after the owner’s daughters (yep, Glen and Leigh). They were enchanted summers. The old steam train in the park we’d clamber over until we became too old yet eyed off with enduring affection every time we passed it, the best pies I have ever tasted (still!), that endless mythic jetty, drive-in movies, raspberry squashes in frosty pilsener glasses from the Ship Hotel, and of course, sun sun sun, sand sand sand, sea sea sea…these are cherished memories.
If this post was about those good ol’ days at Busselton, I could rattle away effortlessly for hours. But it’s not, so I won’t. Besides, it wasn’t all good.
There were the hated swimming lessons, and stingers that invaded the bay in such numbers as to ruin the beach on some days. There were family squabbles and annoying excursions to scenic locales that I saw as merely depriving us of valuable time at the seaside. The worst aspect of these outings was lunchtime. Never was one for sitting on rugs on the gravelly ground of some national park BBQ area, battling swarming flies and resentful bull ants while my unappreciated and often irritated mother doled out her elaborately prepared esky tucker. So irksome were these outings to me that I ended up with “issues” about picnics and families that remain to this day.
One of the few upsides to those dreaded family excursions was the bread we’d buy in the then tiny towns of Dunsborough and Augusta.
They stood tall, those country loaves, domed crusts rising aloofly out of the ubiquitous white tissue paper the bakeries used as wrapping back then. On the way back to Busselton the car would be filled with an aroma that spoke in pure poetry of the treat to come after dinner that evening: homemade fig jam spread lavishly on thick slices of that beautiful pillowy white bread with unhealthy excesses of real country cream poured over. That was one of the great gastronomic experiences of my childhood.
On the melancholy trip back to Perth and the looming beginning of a new school year, we’d stop in at the bakery in Bridgetown, Capel or Boyanup to pick up a couple of their loaves – and when that was gone, that was it for another year. Back to tank loaves and sliced sandwich bread, and other unremarkable city bakery produce.
Was that country bread really as good as I recall it? I cannot know, but I do know that many years were to pass before a truly revelatory bread experience set me on the road to bread obsession. It was 1983-84, during a year in Germany, when I came to understand what great bread truly was. I am speaking mostly of sourdough – naturally leavened bread, largely unheard of in Australia at that time.
I returned to my home country singing the praises of the German bread in operatically emphatic tones. No one cared much to engage with me on this. Bread was just bread to most folk, it seemed. I probably would have felt the same without my German bread encounters. How do you appreciate great bread without having tried it? Whatever, no one shared my fervour.
Fast-forward. Bakeries specializing in sourdough bread can now be found all over the country, but they’re far from prolific. On this side of the country, the New Norcia bakery, originally a monastery bakery run by monks, has the highest profile, but it services a yuppie demographic and is positioned as a high-end boutique establishment that also serves up coffees and expensive pastries and lunches. Sourdough is a long way yet from establishing itself here as the quality bread of choice of the masses, as is the case in Germany and some other European countries.
It might come as a surprise to many, then, to learn that Australia, with the US, is leading a sourdough bread revolution!
Have a listen to this podcast, which is a recording of a segment on the sourdough bread movement broadcast on ABC Rural Radio’s Bush Telegraph program in August 2009. No longer archived onsite, the recording was kindly forwarded to me by a staff member.
ABC Rural Radio Bush Telegraph program (‘Food On Friday’ segment, Aug 09): The Sourdough Bread Movement (duration 18 minutes)
The artisan bread movement as described in that segment is good news indeed, but the emphasis is on professional bakeries. Far more exciting for me is the home artisan bread baking scene – and that’s what I’m referring to when I claim that a revolution is underway.
Revolution? Un peu dramatique, non? Well, no. Baking sourdough bread at home has changed my life. And I see the home artisan bread baking movement as part of a larger shift that has the capacity to change lives en masse – very much for the better.
Sustainable gardening practices utilizing drought-acclimatised native plants, the mass return to home vegetable gardening, backyard chooks and frog ponds, the slow food movement (albeit hijacked by trendy well-heeled foodie types in this part of the world), the surge in interest in home cooking (often misguided, unfortunately, as a result of TV programs that present a cheffy perspective of food and cooking), environmentally informed architecture, the push towards renewable energy – all this adds up to a new world view, no less. And it’s one that is whiteanting the established order on many fronts: mass-manufactured convenience food, industrial utilitarianism and the many sins it attempts to justify, consumerism by default, to name a few. I’m talking subversion by stealth, by evolutionary mass-awareness that I think and hope is building to an unstoppable momentum, that offers a new order far healthier, far more individually driven, nourishing and satisfying, than ever before. That’s revolution.
And it’s something I’m proud to be part of. My ideological proselytizing stops here, but home baking of sourdough bread? I haven’t even started! Stay tuned.
And in the meantime, enjoy a bit of bread porn. This is a small sample of the loaves I have baked in recent months. Be impressed, by all means (I am!), but be aware – results like these are easily achievable by anyone. All you need is a bit of cheap, basic equipment, flour, and some know-how (all covered in the next post).