Smell that aroma ... A fresh-baked brioche from Silo Bakery. Who could possibly resist the temptation? Photo: David Reist
It's 3am on a frosty morning and somewhere in the inner south Leanne Gray has made her way to work, turned on the ovens and started on the huge array of pastries and breads that will fill the shelves when the Silo opens in four hours.
It's my big day. After much negotiating, pleading and tears, I have been allowed to join the kitchen of this bakery for the pre-dawn ritual.
But at 3am, 50 kilometres away out in the country, I sleep on. An hour later the kitchen is in full flight, the sourdough going through its final fermentation, sweet tarts filling the ovens, setting their custardy filling, and huge rolls of leavened buttery pastry in the fridge in the final stage of proving before being shaped into croissants, pain au chocolat, escargot and other pastries. I must be dreaming this as I'm still peacefully snoozing.
Life's essentials ... "What amazes me is the range that essentially two people put out each day." Photo: Jeffrey Chan
At 5am I arrive, bleary-eyed, having dodged the usual army of kangaroos on the highway. It's still pitch black and I take a few shadowy selfies and tweet up so anyone scrolling this early will be impressed by my commitment on my day as a baker.
I've had a real urge to bake my entire adult life. From birth, I lived above a bakery on Sydney's north shore, and my childhood was spent around the bakeries, both my grandfather and father working in the bakery, so I spent my time around bags of flour, dough hooks and delivery trucks.
So don't get me wrong, I get the early hours required, I just needed a little more beauty sleep on this particular day.
Bryan Martin's croque monsieur. Photo: David Reist
What strikes me most about this small, very industrious bakery is just how many things are happening at any given time. Gray and her offsider quietly move about the kitchen, in and out of the coolrooms in an unspoken rotation of doughs, sauces and batters.
There are six ovens at various temperatures, hotter for the breads, cooler to set the tarts. They're always full but constantly being rotated. On the two work benches, dozens of croissants are rolled and moved to the proving cabinets, then a line of Callebaut chocolate is arranged on the same batch of pastry, rolled tightly and cut into the chocolate croissants that are so addictive. On the other bench, brioche dough is being formed into strange little bun shapes, and more into dense loaves.
Pears are being caramelised on the hobs next to a bubbling pot of rye, used later to make the dense and grainy volkornbrot.
Early risers ... Silo Bakery, Kingston, opens at 7am. Photo: Melissa Adams
A deep vessel sits with a smear of starter left over from forming today's sourdough. It's waiting to be fed more flour and water to make the bread base for tomorrow. Today's sourdough loaves are moved from the coolroom for final proving before being baked ready for the 7am opening.
Gray is constantly keeping track of pastries going in and out of the oven and on to the cooling rack.
My plan was to help rather than chat, but this seems such a highly tuned time-and-motion process that if I make one sudden movement the entire morning may spin out of control.
In the centre of the room is a huge mixer for kneading the bread. Today's dough for the stretched stirato loaves is bubbling away, growing very close to the top of the bowl. It's a living thing. Magnificent. This bread is leavened with yeast, rather than the 16-year-old starter that Gray uses for the sourdough. The stirato was started yesterday afternoon with just a tiny amount of yeast, then fermented at just above zero. This slow proving is central to the quality of the bread.
It's a good feeling here, doing something essential to life. Working around yeasts and other microbes, I'm right at home. Vintage in the winery is similar, with the right balance between temperature and time crucial for these industrious little critters.
Pretty soon, the sun shows its face and staff arrive, and I'm getting in the way. The marble counter and bread baskets are filling, the coffee machine has warmed up and the smell of the barista's first test shots intermingles with that intoxicating aroma of baking bread. If I was an estate agent with an open house I'd be in seventh heaven.
On and on the baking continues: sourdough loaves, cobs filled with Chilean fire-dried raisins, stirato after stirato, pasties, sweet and savoury, golden croissants straight from the oven, piled high.
What amazes me is the range that essentially two people put out each day, all cooked in the wee hours. In a candid moment, Gray reflects on how hard it is to get pastry chefs and the long hours she has to work, and yet she clearly loves what she and partner Graham Hudson have achieved.
As Silo opens at 7am, I'm pondering what you'd think if you stumbled across such a place in some small French Alpine village for a breakfast of croissant or croque monsieur.
If only a person could have an extra life. Being a baker, vigneron and cheesemaker (my next plan) would complete me. My morning finishes at 9am, and I'm feeling so energised as I wander off with a loaf of brioche. I know I have blinkers on to a tough job, but I'm off for a long day ahead with my local winemaking buddies and is there anything better than baking and drinking wine for a living?
My pre-dawn daydream gives me an idea for the brioche, a luscious buttery, eggy bread. Croque monsieur is as much a part of the French breakfast ritual as walrus blubber is to an Inuit.
Use comte cheese from the French Alps, or gruyere. With a decent smoked ham, a little bechamel to melt the cheese and a jar of grey poupin mustard you have breakfast.
4 thick slices brioche
4 slices of leg ham
30 g butter
1 heaped tbsp flour
¼ cup milk, plus back up
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
200 g comte or gruyere cheese, grated
salt and pepper
Melt the butter and cook till it stops sizzling. Add the flour, stir to dissolve and cook until grainy. Add the milk and bring to a low simmer, adding extra milk if needed. Cook until it loses its floury smell, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and add cheese - it will melt and end up really stringy. Add the mustard and season.
Spread each slice of bread with cheese sauce, add two slices of ham and fold them together to make a sandwich. You can do this the night before, wrapping your sandwich in greaseproof paper.
When you're ready heat up a sandwich press or frypan and cook until the cheese melts out the side. Tradition would have this fried in butter, but the press works a treat - leave it folded in the baking paper and you don't need to use fat.
Cut in two and serve with good coffee.
>> Bryan Martin is winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, bryanmartin.com.au.