Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Artisan Bakery: the great global bake-off

Plant geneticist John Letts (left) and the 'godfather' of Australian sourdough John Downes.
Plant geneticist John Letts (left) and the 'godfather' of Australian sourdough John Downes. Photo: Jessica Dale

On two allotments in South London Andy Forbes, 58, is growing some rather odd-looking wheat. While modern wheat stands barely to your knee – bred that way over the past 55 years for use with chemical fertilisers and requiring herbicides, fungicides and pesticides – these heritage lines grow as tall as a man. Forbes has spent six years bulking up heritage wheat stocks from gene-bank samples of British lines that went out of fashion with industrialisation and the enclosure of common land (fenced private land) in the early 19th century.

And his primary reason? Flavour. "Wheat breeding for decades has been about using agro-chemicals, yield and technical baking requirements. Flavour was consigned to the wastepaper basket. We want to put it back in the loaf at the centre of the table," Forbes says. If all goes to plan he will soon be able to produce enough flour so the public can taste a loaf that hasn't been baked in England, or elsewhere, since the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay – a key wheat line for Forbes is the Red Lammas, sister of the first wheat brought to Australia, the White Lammas.

Forbes' Brockwell Bake project is just one part of a global baking revival that takes in artisan bread, a continued rise in the use of ancient grains (such as spelt), denser cakes (including gluten-free and dairy-free) and a spate of cleverly fitted-out new-wave bakeries. Meanwhile, cooking shows such as The Great British Bake Off and its Australian counterpart have fuelled new interest in home baking.

Known as the "godfather" of Australian sourdough, John Downes, 65, has been watching these developments with great interest from his home in South Australia's Sellicks Beach. Downes, in Melbourne this week with a dozen or so of the world's leading bakers at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, began baking sourdough in Byron Bay in the 1970s. He took over the Feedwell Foundry in Greville Street, Prahran, before opening Natural Tucker in 1984. The master baker recently spent time in Britain and is excited by what he saw there. "What's happening in Britain is a massive growth of small bakeries and sourdough bread – or at least bread that's made in a traditional way, with a long ferment," he says. "But it's also happening in America and France as well."

While in Britain Downes baked bread with wheat grown by plant geneticist John Letts, who was among the first people to grow strains of traditional wheat. When you compared this traditional loaf with bread made from modern industrial strains there was simply "no contest", Downes says. "It was so robust and magnificent and full of flavour and the crust was so full of colour. It was art, really." Downes adds that when you find out what has happened to modern wheat – the many years of line breeding that alters height, molecular structure and increases levels of gluten – the idea of reverting to "lost" heritage strains becomes less about fashion and more about nutrition – or as he says, just plain common sense.

Loaves in the Tivoli Road Bakery.
Loaves in the Tivoli Road Bakery.  Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Back in London, when Justin Gellatly isn't baking breakfast buns for the royals (as he did for Will and Kate's wedding in 2011 – 1000 of them) he runs Bread Ahead Bakery and School, a modest-sized bakery close to London Bridge. He's seen a boom in what he calls micro-bakeries, people baking at home in backyard ovens and selling surplus loaves in local shops. "It's incredible," Gellatly says. "We even find people who come on our courses who have micro-bakeries in their back garden and they bake for their local village. It's really exciting, actually." The cottage industry is clearly booming in London but if this inspires you to start a micro-bakery of your own here in Australia, do some research first. Local councils should generally be OK with your outdoor wood-fired bread oven (as long as it's not built in an enclosed space) but you will need to register your business with them under the Food Act if you want to sell your bread to the masses.

With a baking empire that stretches from London to Hangzhou, Singapore, New Zealand and soon Manila and Osaka and to his home in Copenhagen, Denmark, it's not surprising to hear that Dean Brettschneider thinks the world has gone "baking crazy". He says innovative ingredients (such as freeze-dried raspberries) have become much more accessible over the past five to 10 years to home bakers; people are savvier about incorporating ancient grains into their bread mixes; and smaller artisan bakers are even sprouting their own wheat and grinding their own grains as a point of difference.

"How did the coffee revolution start?" Brettschneider says over the phone from Singapore. "It was probably some guys who were roasting at home on their tin pan. Things evolve from these grassroots. You need all these micro-bakers out there doing things slightly different." 

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Brettschneider has also noticed that Australians and New Zealanders are driving a new style of bakery retail. "I call it the second wave of baking. The French, the Germans, the British, the Danish – they've all pioneered baking over the years and they're the first wave. Now there's a second wave coming in and it is very Antipodean/New World-focused. We do things that people want. We don't do things just because [it's our tradition]. Imagine if Australians and New Zealanders just made lamingtons, pies and white loaves of bread? How boring would that be?"

Two "second wave" bakers closer to home are Mike McEnearney in Sydney and Daniel Chirico in Melbourne. McEnearney chucked in an impressive career cooking at fancy restaurants including Neil Perry's Rockpool and London's Pied a Terre to open an egalitarian, canteen-style bakery in a former tomato sauce factory near Sydney's airport. Called Kitchen By Mike, it was the next logical step after a year of hosting (illegal) pop-up dinners at a friend's chic found-objects showroom in Surry Hills. His simple, stripped-back, food-focused style is a big hit with locals.

Most days at Kitchen By Mike, McEnearney bakes 20 loaves of properly fermented sourdough, and he's proud that's done without the use of proving retarders, steam injection or digital probes – all tools linked to what he calls "fast" white bread. "Bread like that was invented in the '60s in England in a place called Chorleywood. They went from fermenting sourdough over 48 hours, which is what we do and was how all bread was made back then, to four hours … You're eating something that's raw and that your body can't digest. It's glue in your stomach."

Anjum Anand.
Anjum Anand.  Photo: Jessica Dale

In Melbourne, Chirico has been impressing the public with his artisan breads and pastries since opening in St Kilda in 2001. His Baker D. Chirico stores in St Kilda and Carlton blend artisan baking with art, design and style. "The game has lifted as far as the retail component goes," he says. "The delivery, the amount of effort bakers are putting in to be somewhat innovative or progressive on maybe a shop-fit or maybe a philosophy that people are acknowledging and respecting. [It's] giving [baking] a platform with some respect. A good baker, a good company that's run well can really throw their hat in the ring among great restaurants as far as an experience and delivery, which is what we've pretty much done there in Carlton." 

But it's not all just about artisan bread. Singapore's dessert-meets-art maven Janice Wong says the same lust for home-crafted produce is happening there too with an explosion of farmers markets, artisanal items and batch-roasted coffee –baking is a part of that trend. Ruth Rogers, of River Cafe in London, says television programs have made people enthusiastic for baking cakes, with more books available about it than ever before. "It's a science," she says. "You can't play around with putting a little bit of this or that – I mean, you can, but once you've found a recipe you really need to stick to that. I think people probably find it as a discipline quite an interesting thing to do."

Global restaurateur Bill Granger agrees, adding that denser, gluten and dairy-free cakes taste better and are better for you. He no longer enjoys baking cakes with plain white flours, he says. "I don't think there's enough texture in there, enough flavour, enough interest. That's, for me, what's the most exciting thing. Having three daughters, our house is full of cupcakes being made for school bake sales and all of that. But for me, it's not what I really want to eat."

Top-notch baker Justin Gellatly.
Top-notch baker Justin Gellatly. 

Back in London Forbes is hopeful that he is now just two seasons away from being able to offer his 300-year-old heritage loaf to the public. But in the meantime, he's busy helping schoolchildren learn about Britain's grain history, tending his shoulder-high crop and puzzling over how to harvest it all (his plots, for the time being, are far too small to be able to use a modern combine harvester). There's nothing better, he says, than walking through a field of swaying heritage wheat, which actually does rustle in the wind, unlike the modern stuff. "It's that connection with the fact that this is the 'staff of life'. It is the foundation, if you like, of our present civilisation. We wouldn't have farming, we wouldn't have towns and cities if it wasn't for this plant. In a way, it's about getting back to the roots of that."

Rock up to the Festival Artisan Bakery & Bar from Friday, February 27 to Sunday, March 15 from 7.30am til late to sample these guest bakers' wares. See melbournefoodandwine.com.au