Melbourne bread……….John Downes
My rediscovery of Melbournes bread baking past was a type of archaeology really, which happens to be my deepest interest/hobby. It began in 1979 when I took over the ailing “Feedwell foundry” in one of the (then) hippest parts of town, Greville st Prahran.
It was a large 2 storey brick building complete with shopfront, bakery with 2 Small and Shatell wood fired ovens set in a stack ( one on top of the other, the lower one accessed by a pit infront of the oven, which was covered with tight-fitting thick boards when the upper was in use). These were a masterpiece with beautifully wrought and decorated firebox doors and main door, with a shared chimney/flue. Upstairs was the bakers residence, a complete house, and extended so that the upper (1st)floor (over the bakery) was a flour handling facility, with large thick wooden doors opening out to a laneway. Flour was raised up with pulleys and stored here .
As I was to learn later, on finding another such bakery in collingwood, this time with all of the 1930`s equipment still upstairs untouched, wheat was also milled on the upper floor and sifted to flour, which says a lot about what type of bread was being made here, and its quality. They were making bread with a proportion or all of, sifted flour. In this process the wheat has been ground to wholemeal flour and then simply sifted to remove most of the bran. A lot of fine bran and germ remains, resulting in a tan or light brown flour/bread. This type of flour is standard fare in Europe, but hardly exists at all from modern millers in Australia. Bread made from such flour is often regarded as a worthy compromise between white and wholemeal. It is lighter yet still flavousome and nutritious. It used to be called “Brown” bread as opposed to white or wholemeal. I used it a lot in my breads. Now it is often called “Lite” which is cringeful, and “brown” bread is merely dyed white bread.
In all, the building was quite a feature which betrayed the wealth of the city when it was built, and the relative importance of bread and baking. I was also to learn that it was average compared to the shops and fronts of other bakeries which once existed in Melbourne, as you will still see in Paris today, ornate and artistic buildings. Unfortunately, we Australians let go of our past in the melee to modernise and all of these are demolished.
The building also still housed the legendary “Thoroughbred” single-arm dough mixer of 100kg capacity, the workhorse of the Australian bread industry. At the back of the building were two storey brick stables, the size of a medium sized house. This all clearly spoke of relative affluence….and business.
I operated it as a “Wholefood” bakery which it had always been since being discovered and inhabited by a notorious left wing political faction which morphed into a counter cultural food coop/rock band. It already had serious history, but underneath that was the mysterious building. I constantly mused at its history, and was infused with the resonance of previous bakers.
I say “discovered” as such buildings were numerous and semi derelict in the 60`s and early 70`s, and available for very cheap rent. Everybody from Students for a Democratic Society to theatre groups and religious communes had really interesting old buildings.
In the 1950`s/60`s the population had moved to the “modern” suburbs and was being re-educated by the corporates to shop and buy what and where they told them .
Baking was centralised into corporatised groups with massive plants making “white tiles”. Some of these corporates even bought the leases on the major old bakeries, and refused to rent them as bakeries…closing down all opposition….or destroyed the ovens, as happened in hundreds of instances.
The craft of baking almost died in a 10 year span after WW2. But this building in prahran had been “saved” and given life again, which is extrordinary because as I started to search the town in the early80`s for other such bakeries I was always a bit late. They were near every major railway station and business centre. Some had 5 or 6 woodfired brick ovens, and were major bread plants…now ( always!) architects offices with chunky ambience from their roots.
The most interesting one was in South Melbourne and evidently supplied Government house. I arrived mid conversion, luckily just in time to see the interior of a marvel, mid demolition….. a sloping sole (hearth/floor) wood-fired, brick,Vienna bread oven. The last remaining in Australia, and probably only one of a few even built here. It’s a marvel because of its rarity, but also because of the culinary culture it revealed. This was a highly specialised type of wood-fired oven made soley to produce a particular type of bread, and none other. This type of bread had to have quite a customer base, who had to be food savvy for it to exist
The other part of the marvel was that as the oven was being demolished, a charred and blackened object revealed itself. Phoenix-like, it was a perfect vienna bread from…when? Im guessing probably 1950. There it was, the baker had puposely left it. Or had he?. In using these type of “Scotch” ovens, I had occasionally missed a loaf in exactly the same position as this was found, to the extreme left of the oven door, “round the corner”. But I reckon he left it purposefully for one such as myself to discover.
This loaf spoke volumes. No bread like it had been made in recent baking in Australia, nor I thought in the recent past from what I`d gleaned talking to older bakers and examining old bakers journals.. What shocked me really was that it was very similar to the crusty sourdough bread I was now baking in Melbourne, nearby even. This loaf was more elegant and refined than my loaves, but it was similar to my “Casalinga” made from mainly unbleached white flour, baked on the sole (as was the Vienna), and “torpedo” shape with classical angled slashes or cuts on the upper crusty surface. The charred loaf was half the size of my casalinga which made it about 500gms. It would have been made with yeast, but a far cry from todays yeast, and also would have had 12-15 hours in the making. I know these loaves from my readings of older baking journals and books. I also know their culinary context from my studies in gastronomy. This type of loaf was called a “Vienna slipper”.
The “Vienna” loaf became popular in Paris in the late 1800`s. “Vienna” because the process for making this type of bread, which required steam injection to prevent (initially) a crust from forming, had come from Vienna, as had the strong Hungarian bread flours which enabled the best result. The bread was light, white and with the thinnest crisp crust. It was the demand of a sophisticated food culture to accompany the various and interesting foods which were being celebrated and developed in French cuisine, which was culinarily colonising the world. “French food” meant the best and highly developed cuisine in Europe, and thus the rest of the (Western) world.
But before the actual technology to inject steam had been developed, the original way to make Vienna bread was to (ingeniously) construct an oven in which the sole sloped upwards at quite a steep angle. This trapped more steam in the crown (ceiling) of the oven and allows the bread to continue billowing and rising, before a crust forms. By delaying the crust formation, the resulting crust is thin compared to a regular crust which forms rapidly in a regular oven. It was a more refined crust….“crusty”, but also “crispy”. It was the predecessor to what became known as “French” bread.
I was told that a large basket was placed in front of the oven door, and the loaves would tumble out straight into it when a wooden slip was “slipped” under the rear loaves, causing a chain reaction. I thought this would break too many crusts, but as always, one cannot emphasise enough the skill of a craftsman to accomplish tasks which are impossible and improbable to a lay person.
This all gives me the information needed to date the oven, because they were only built for a short period before steam injecting was developed, along with electric and gas ovens.
It means Melbourne was a part of the culinary celebration which was sweeping Europe and America, famous through the cuisine of Escoffier for example, who incidentally would have demanded such bread for his hotels/restaurants. It was therefore built between 1880 and 1900, to supply a gastronomically aware clientele.
Its forgotten really that Melbourne was the second largest city in the British commonwealth until WW1, and very wealthy from the Gold discoveries which enabled a vibrant and diverse society.Australia has such a culinary cringe, that most of us think good food has only just arrived. There is plenty of evidence that this was not entirely the case eventhough culinary mediocrity may have been widespread….as it still is.
To me it underlined Melbourne as a cosmopolitan city, the cultural hub, more so than Sydney even with its icons.
It also gave me a sense in place and time. I was not the first to be an artisan baker in Melbourne. I may have initiated the revival of artisan baking, but we sometimes joked about the ghosts in these old bakeries, and how they watched us…critical of our efforts.
Its no coincidence that Melbourne has been the home and hub of Artisan bakers. It’s the perfect “Bread town” in so many ways, least of all climatically. Its always bread eating weather in Melbourne, a more serious undertaking than the languid salad sandwich of northern NSW and QLD. When I started making my breads in the late 70`s and early 80`s, it took a while, but when Melbourne folk discovered my good bread, they rewarded me with their continued custom. Im sure an artisan baker revival couldn’t have happened elsewhere in Australia, and it keeps rolling on in Melbourne with good bread widely available,(suprisingly more so than many European cities) and a discernable artisan spirit. This has indeed spread elsewhere but Melbourne is the heartland.