Baking in a big city is fine; it has a ‘buzzy’ urgency. Chef customers hot on the phone, whining the instant they see anything unusual with the delivery. Shoppers spinning in the centre of the store with bored expressions and dismissive hand flicks while moaning, “God, this place has lost its edge, I knew we should have gone to [here insert the name of whatever the 'hot' shop of the moment is]”. Those questions, “Do you have any carb-free bread?”, “Do you have any croissants without butter?”, “Is this the bread Gwyneth and Angelina buy?”
It’s enough to make me wish I could just click my fingers, vanish, and reappear in some little idyll with my own wood fired oven, a forest for wood, and a spring with the cleanest water. Then a voice shouts, “Earth to Planet Dan”, and the bubble pops.
There are many spots in this big old world where the living is, well, not easy. In some the beauty of the land and the sky temper those moments of hardness. I get mail from bakers, living and working in breathtaking scenery, willing to give it all up for a shot at big city success. But I also hear from others deep in urban life desperate to escape the tangled city.
Living and working upfront with an extraordinary and often alarming landscape is real life for some bakers. I visited one such bakery, in the Yarra Valley north of Melbourne.
At Fruition Bakery, Iain Banfield and Lyndall Francis have slowly and steadily built their bakery business to a healthy manageable point. And by built, I mean built. From building the oven to delivering the bread, it’s all their effort and reward. It’s not a ‘big buck’ bakery, but something on a human scale, and good for that. Though it is organic, a better word to describe it is “sustainable”. As one writer noted, “Iain and Lyndall ensure that they plant at least a hundred trees each year to replace the sawmill offcuts that they use to fire their oven”.
The bakery is situated on a farm owned by Lyndall’s father and mother near Healesville, on the edge of the Yarra Valley. Though established as a route from Melbourne through to the goldfields during the 1800s, the area was also the scene of a shameful episode in Australia’s history, at Coranderrk Aboriginal Reservation (5km to the south of Healesville).
From the early part of the 1800s through to the mid 1900s the area was gradually stripped of its forest to clear the area for cattle farming, orchards and tobacco plantations. The first vineyards were planted in the 1830s at Yering Station in Yarra Glen. During the early 1900s artists were entranced by the rough, stringy beauty of the local trees and the harsh light, and over the next 50 years the area became renowned for its community of artists as much as for the soil that produced excellent wines, hops, and other produce. So this community began to protect the area, and re-establish planting of local shrubs and trees.
Lyndall’s parents moved to the area in the early 1970s, still quite an unusual move with the hint of the pioneer to it. The Dandenong Ranges, by this point a national park thick with tree ferns, white gums and animal life, separated the Yarra Valley from outer Melbourne. This park was a mesh that protected the valley from the bulging suburbs around inner Melbourne studded with shopping malls, roller discos and vast eat-until-you’re-sick palaces like “The Swagman” , a hall of gluttony given the name of a frugal traveller.
But during the recession in the 1980s the excesses slowly gave way to an appreciation of nature and the landscape, and the hills and valley became respected as a treasure of the State. Food production from the area over the last 25 years slowly began to be cultivated for quality rather than sheer bulk, and this began to be appreciated by the media and, in turn, the public. Perhaps it also marked the beginning of a new era of excessive consumption, but at least this had the benefit of promoting the work of small producers.
Many businesses have fallen apart soon after trying to set up in a beautiful location. Sometimes the demand just isn’t there. Other times the sightseeing tourists simply want take-away food, and don’t want to carry a loaf back home. So, like any bakery anywhere, to succeed it has to make what local people want.
The greater Dandenong and Yarra Valley area was home to several Steiner communities, and for them good bread was an important part of life. There were restaurants and cafes as well that fuelled the food-loving day-trippers from Melbourne, and they needed good bread. Local people longed for a bakery that provided something other than the bouncy loaves from the hot bread shops. So the market was ripe, and just needed the right kind of bakery.
Lyndall and Iain had set up an organic farm on Lyndall’s parents’ land in the 1980s, though that was proving to be an almighty task. On a whim they built an oven adjoining a small outbuilding on the farm with the plans and help of Australian Alan Scott who, in Johnny Appleseed fashion, was sowing both the US and Australia with small wood-fired ovens. They called their bakery Fruition, and it was instantly popular, if not a sturdy commercial success. It was clear to all that it needed to grow.
The key to staying afloat and earning enough was in growing to the right size. Too big and the constant flow of money could mean losing any control on the quality. Too small and it might as well just be a hobby. After a great deal of thought they got building a second larger oven, again with the help of Alan Scott. This gave Fruition the size to maintain an excellent production without working so much that the spirit of the venture got lost.
I’ve arrived about midday at the bakery, so when I talk to Iain, production has been in swing a few hours (my questions are in bold):
What sort of flour is it here?
It’s organic, Laucke. It’s all roller milled and stone-ground, it’s a white and a wholemeal.
I can smell…this is a sourdough?
All we do is sourdough…
It looks beautiful, the texture is incredibly soft and wet. There is this wonderful, almost yoghurty smell that comes from the dough. And this old Artifex looks great, this twin arm mixer.
Yeah, that was a bit of a find actually.
Where’s that from?
We got it from a place up in Brisbane. I’d only before used single arm mixers. I’d started work at Natural Tucker years ago and they had an old single arm mixer there. I’m trying to think how I actually got onto the double arm.
Did you read about it somewhere?
I’m not actually sure that I did. We had been looking for a small mixer, and the thing is with a single arm mixer that the bowl’s huge. When we started we were mixing by hand for the first year.
And you were probably taken by the look of it too, because it just looks quite beautiful. It’s battered, painted white with little chrome handles.
They sent us a photo from Brisbane of a similar one that had been reconditioned and we thought “that looks beautiful” and we got very excited about that. Then we rang them back and that had been sold. And then he said “But I’ve just come across another one”, so we thought, “oh yeah, we’ll grab that”. And when it came down it was nothing like the photo (he laughs). We were disappointed when it first came, it had cut cables coming out of it, oil in the bowl, there was a crushed Coke can in the bowl – we almost sent it back when we got it out here.
I noticed that as you were cutting into the dough that the aeration is already there, I can see little holes, air bubbles. When was the dough mixed?
Ah, about a hour ago, about 45 minutes….
Amazing…. And what sort of temperature? It feels about…
About 24C. A bit warmer than in the middle of winter.
And what are these little flecks in the dough that I can see?
That’s the bran from the wholemeal. The wholemeal flour has got quite flaky bran pieces through it.
There is a beautiful cream colour to the dough. It’s definitely white…It’s got about 10% wholemeal in it.
(A little later) What are you putting in here?
Sultanas and currants soaked in apple juice and spices.
It smells beautiful. And you’ve heated them through?
Yep, just to plump up the sultanas, then I’ll let that cool a little..
They’ve gone into the bowl so hot that now there is this great cloud of wonderful cinnamon steam over the bowl…
It’s the Speculaas mixture…
Speculaas is an Amsterdam…
A Dutch spice mixture.
So the white dough that you’ve taken out you’ll leave for….
Usually 3 hours for a bulk ferment, then a pre-shape and shape.
So what’s this next bread you’re going to make?
Well that’s the… I’ll take out this one here, that’s just the white dough I’ll mix back in and mix the fruit through that
Ah right, ok, so you’ll make one big dough, then out of that…
I’ll make the fruit bread, this will be the focaccia, and then I’ll come back and cook up onions, garlic and rosemary and I’ll mix that through this dough. And that’s it out of that dough. And then I’ll mix a combination of white, rye and wholemeal, and we’ll do what’s called a ‘seeded sourdough’, which has the linseeds, the organic linseeds and some sesame seeds mixed through that. And then it’s rolled through sesame seeds as well.
Any reason for using both light and dark linseed?
Just because they’re available at the moment. You can’t always get the golden ones.
These cloths look great that you have hanging up, have you just got these locally? They’re long sheets of Belgian linen about a meter and a half long by half a meter wide. And you can see the imprint of the loaves in flour on the cloth. Do you wash them?
We bang and brush them well at the end of the night. We used to have some before that were 6 years old and falling apart, the health department said, “I think you should get rid of those”.
I’ve see them in French bakeries and they’re black.
I read Poilane saying that was where half the goodness comes from. That mould…
I’ve heard bakers say that insects in cloths and baskets are good luck.
Waxing lyrically about the different hues of green and blue…The Belgian linen definitely makes a difference, ’cause we used to use just calico ones. But they’re actually hard to get here. I’m trying to find another distributor at the moment to get me some as we need some more.
I prefer the linen, because I find with calico that because the fibre is much finer that it sticks to the loaf, giving you all these hairy bits on the loaf, whereas with the linen you don’t seem to get any hairs or stray fabric stuck to the outside of the loaf.
So there is a lot of liquid that you’re adding in with the Sultana and spice mix. Are you going to add in more flour as well?
No, no more flour. There’s not a huge amount of liquid that goes in with the mixture, though the dough is very moist.
And the dough is going to go into these tins?
Yes, the small tins. We don’t do many breads in tins, but a lot of people demand them. They like the slicing and the toasting. I’ve always said that I would prefer not to use any tins. But it’s what they want.
A bread that fits into the toaster.
It does, yes. People need to buy new toasters, toasters with space for four slices instead of two.
There is a corrugated iron covered veranda out front of the bakery, making it look a little like an old homestead. I’m sitting with Lyndall’s father in the shade, talking about the start of the bakery….
Your mother lived here too…
My mother died at 105. Yep, we had her here for a while in a granny flat as she was no longer able to look after herself.
So you moved here in 1978? That must have been such thing to do. I remember growing up then and this was really quite ‘the wilds’. We didn’t really have a big wine industry at that time, and moving out to Healesville was quite alternative.
Oh yes. Why did I do it?
What appealed to you about it?
I wasn’t well. In fact, no one new what the trouble was at the time. And there was a coincidence. My wife happened to be a schoolteacher, and I just happened to read about a school camp for sale. And she suggested that I investigate it. And I refused because I wouldn’t have had the patience with the kids, and she thought I would. Anyhow, some while later we took Lyndall to her school camp which was up Alexandria, beyond here, which was on a farm. And at the time we had a farm as an experiment, at Mt Gambier, to see if I liked farming as a retirement exercise. And we did. So we took her to her school camp on a farm and I thought, “well, perhaps we could do something similar”. So we spent a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time, looking at properties to do just this. To the stage where Nan was reduced to tears, she just didn’t want to go out any more and look at any more places, and I was getting sick of it too. But all of a sudden we discovered this place. We just saw it and bought it as quickly as that. And never regretted that for one fleeting moment.
Was it quite bare around here? I noticed a lot of young trees, it must have had a wonderful view.
This place here was totally bare. The paddock that’s up here had one tree on the crest, and nothing else. Now you can see that it’s quite a wilderness because we’ve planted many hundreds of trees on the property.
And how is it living with all the family?
How is it? No, it’s fine
You didn’t want them to go away and leave?
No, it works out quite well. We’ve been a bit jammed in on occasion, and we still are. But that’s changing. Lyndall and Iain used to live in the cottage here, but that got beyond “livability”, especially with the size of their family. Though we’ve extended the place upstairs. They’re living in the extension [now], and the other branch of the family has just started to build a house on the property. So that, for the first time, we’ll have adequate accommodation for everybody.
That’s excellent. So tell me, before you were talking about the oven…
The oven. So with the first oven that was built here, I had a suspicion that it was too small. But Iain felt it would make so much bread that it was adequate in size. Well, after some period in time he discovered that it was, in fact, too small. And after some years he contacted Alan with a view to making a larger oven. And they sent the plans out and decided to go ahead with it.
Did you like the idea from the beginning?
Of them doing it? Well, they had the problem of making a living of some sort, and when they came to the farm they spent time growing organic vegetables. Which meant that they worked very hard, sold the stuff mainly to their impoverished friends who couldn’t afford [to pay] very much money. So they worked very hard for an inadequate income. And winter being a quieter time here, and with another son-in-law who’s a capable builder and does bricklaying quite well, we thought it would be an opportunity to put in the first oven. And so we in fact put in the first oven with Mike building it. So this got going with a view to complement the veggies.
But in fact what happened was of course that the bakery took over completely and the vegetables were completely forgotten. And so they carried on for quite some while, and in fact the [smaller] oven doesn’t make enough bread to make a really good living. Not that bread is a good living anyhow – you need to do something a bit more major than that.
Anyhow, the next oven came about and this did appear to be a reasonable size. But of course Alan’s plans were drawn in America, so that they were in the old imperial system, whereas we’re of course metric here. So I thought I’d examine the plans to see if they suited our building materials. And in doing that I felt “ok, I have to make some changes, not much, but I’ll take the opportunity to make sure that the insulation is top quality”. Because the first oven plans did in fact allow too much heat to escape. And you could feel the heat all around [the outside of the brickwork]. And I didn’t want that to happen in the new oven.
So what did you use?
I basically stayed with Alan’s plans, and he had in fact made a bit of an improvement on the hearth. Because there’s an insulated slab underneath the hearth which contains vermiculite – which gives a certain amount of insulation which doesn’t appear in the first oven. But I thought, “ok, I’ve got to change the dimensions slightly. I want to be absolutely certain that the minimum insulation that Alan has laid down will be achieved satisfactorily”.
So then I thought, “well since I’ve got to make some slight changes we’ll make [the oven] just a little bit bigger all around”. So I did. Then having done all that we though the best thing to do was then of course to refer it back to Alan to make sure he was happy with the various changes that had taken place. And he was, fortunately. So the oven is Alan’s design with just a few minor alterations.
So did you put vermiculite across the top as well?
Oh yes. But we just made sure that there was stacks of insulation. And you can go around now and you wont find any escaping heat to speak of in there. So it’s a very, very efficient
It’s excellent, really good…
I think in some ways it’s a bit too efficient. When they want it to cool down to make other products it doesn’t get there in time [he laughs]
Oh well, you can’t have everything…
(no shop, contact details only)
531 Healesville KooWeeRup Road
Healesville 3777 VIC
Telephone: (03) 5962 3175