Close to the Hearth
STORY BY RICHARD CORNISH
It is early morning and the weeds in the laneway leading to RedBeard Bakery in Trentham are covered in frost. A breath of icy wind picks up woodsmoke venting from the chimney and folds it back down to earth. Inside the 127-year-old bakery it is warm, the air filled with the aroma of fermenting dough and the browning of crusty loaves. John Reid’s red T-shirt bears the marks where he has wiped his flour clad hands on his torso. He has spent a quarter of a century as a baker of real bread, the last 14 years at RedBeard Bakery. He uses just five ingredients: flour, water, salt, naturally occurring levan and, most importantly, time.
John learned his trade under the late David Brown at Firebrand Bakery in Ripponlea. There he was given a copy of Manna by Walter T. Banfield, an encyclopaedic description of the way bread was made using traditional, naturally occurring yeasts and other techniques prior to its industrialisation. He is very critical of modern, mass-produced bread and points the finger at a lot of the problems we have digesting it with the very quick way it is produced in the factory.
“The bread we bake here, real bread, is even eaten by people who suffer from gluten intolerance,” says John. The long, slow fermentation period gives the naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria time to break down the flour, at the same time producing by-products that just happen to make bread naturally delicious. “We don’t use the term sourdough,” says John. He explains that the term is misleading. He prefers to use terms like ‘wild ferment’ referring to the microscopic army of scores of different wild yeasts, lactic acid and other bacteria in his starter culture or levan. “During the Californian gold rushes miners would carry their starter cultures in warm saddle- bags,” he explains. If they became too hot it would emit a sour aroma. “Good sourdoughs are never actually sour,” he says. During fermentation the unpaid army of invisible microbial workers not only transform starch in the flour to sugar and digest it to make the gas that makes the bread rise but also break down the gluten and the amino acids associated with it.
John found the old bakery at Trentham unexpectedly. He had been working tirelessly to save the Abbottsford Convent from development, raising funds selling baked goods by the Yarra. Inside the convent was an old Scotch oven that John wanted to restore and make it a place to bake real bread for the people of inner Melbourne. When the lengthy lease negotiations went southward he and his family went for a recuperative walk in the Lerderderg Gorge. On the way back they stopped by Trentham. John saw the chimney of the oven from the street and wandered down the lane.
The building had recently been restored by Daylesford musician Adrian Kosky. The oven was in good condition and only the doors needed to be found and refitted. Built in 1891 the brick oven worked continuously until 1987 a year after the baker working at the time suffered a fatal heart attack on the job. John and his brother Alan took over the bakery and fired up the oven again in 2005. They initially started with wholesale as part of their business plane. “We worked out that by supplying Central Victoria with real bread we were stopping other bakers springing up under their own steam,” says John. They ceased wholesale concentrating on their basic range of breads. Since then other bakers have risen up in the region.
“Real bread has been feeding humans for the last 10,000 years,” explains John. “Scotch ovens were the focus of towns and communities since the late 1800s until the mid 20th century. I want to see more people thinking about bread,” he says. He has joined forces with local farmers and millers to start baking breads with locally grown grain that are milled locally. “Look out for the Slow Grain movement,” he says.
Call John to book a tour of the bakery on (03) 5424 1002. Red Beard Bakery,
38A High Street, Trentham. Opposite Trentham’s town square, follow the laneway off High St to the red ‘Bakery’ bollards.
Open Fri - Mon 8am to 5pm,