New England road-trip (bread and ovens)
I have just returned home from a weeks trip in the New England tablelands. This region is south across the border into New South Wales and roughly six hours drive from Brisbane. Even though it has some of New South Wales most renowned national parks and world heritage areas I was travelling for my usual reasons ... bread.
Dennis (the fantastic oven builder from Chester St) was driving to Sydney and had offered me a lift to Armidale which is the centre of the New England area. Roughly five years ago Dennis built a beautiful 6x8 ft Alan Scott oven for a business in Armidale called the Goldfish Bowl and I was invited down by one of its owners Nick Oxley to spend a few days baking and taking some photos.
The trip down to Armidale passes through my childhood town of Warwick and then further south through picturesque towns full of history and character. We stopped in the pretty town of Tenterfield and spent some time wandering around an old bakery that was sitting in disrepair behind a hairdressers. Two large masonry ovens called scotch ovens would have been part of the bakery though only the facade remained of one. Dennis estimated the remaining oven's hearth to be 3m x 5m and though the bricks showed obvious signs of wear it seemed in reasonable condition. A rusty firebox was situated to the right side of the oven mouth and was vented at the rear into the side of the oven. Rusty flue controllers were still visibile and rusted tight and the bed of sand that covered the oven roof was littered with debris and damage from the elements.
These were the standard bakery ovens in most small towns across Australia until the larger the industrial bakeries put many of them out of business.The usual practice would be for the local bakery to be bought out by a larger industrial bakery then shut down. Industrial bread would then be shipped in from larger towns nearby. We don't know the history of this particular oven but it was an eery feeling standing in the dim bakery room imagining the smells and sounds of yesteryear.
We arrived in Armidale later that day after driving up over the rolling hills of the Northern Tablelands through cooling temperatures. My Grandparents lived in Armidale for some time and was one of my Grandmothers favourite places. She would talk lovingly about the bracing winters, snow and her rose gardens. The temperatures had already started to fall by the time we had caught up with Nick and his family for a Sunday evening dinner and by the following morning when we arrived at the bakery at 4am it was -7°C.
Nick and his brother Josh have been running the Goldfish Bowl in its current form for about 5 years and before that as a hole in the wall coffee shop. Not only do they produce delicious woodfired sourdough but they also roast their own coffee and have a fantastic kitchen team serving breakfast and lunch. The Alan Scott oven is the centrepiece of their cafe ... bread is baked early in the morning followed by pastries before being handed over to the chefs for use until after lunch when it is fired again.
Throughout the day I spent time in the kitchen with the chefs assisting in various odds and ends, shaping croissants, rolling puff pastry and generally trying to be helpful until Nick and I would spend the afternoon shaping bread. A large timber table was the centre piece of the kitchen and was wiped clean in the afternoon to allow for the bread production. After only being exposed to stainless steel benchtops the timber surface was a delight to shape on.
Nick keeps two starters for his bread–a liquid white and rye–and mixes a warm well hydrated dough that has a decent bulk ferment before dividing and shaping. A usual days mixing would involve perhaps five batches–white sourdough, rustic white, soy and linseed, rye, fruit and perhaps a spelt dough or wholemeal. After shaping the bread is retarded until baking the following morning.
The large oven that dennis built for the Goldfish Bowl is a thing of beauty. Red bricks cover the dome and large sandstone pieces feature at the oven mouth. Watching Nick and Josh loading the oven briskly each morning and witnessing the amount of bread each oven load could produce I was reminded of the old adage that you build the biggest oven you can afford.
I also felt the larger oven with its lower roof height allowed for better steaming and baking of the bread, and I marvelled at the evenness and glossiness of the crust they could produce. They make beautiful looking bread at the Goldfish Bowl and every loaf tastes fantastic. (oh, and every single coffee I was offered was memorable) Thank you Nick for your families warm hospitality and my best wishes to all the team at the Goldfish Bowl. Thanks for having me around for a few days :)
On my way back to Brisbane I stopped by my parents for a few days in Warwick. I had heard about a few scotch ovens in the nearby area so my mum and I took a short road trip and found a beautiful example of an old Australian bakery. A plaque near the front says it was built in the late 1890's ... It is in remarkable condition and is currently used as a storage shed. I spoke briefly to owners and perhaps in the future when it is cleaned out, Dennis and I may have the opportunity to peer inside and step back in time again.