Making dough

First there was coffee, and then came craft beer. Today, the rising trend in Wellington’s food and beverage scene is handmade artisan bread, writes Sarah Catherall.

By Sarah Catherall
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #66
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In Shelly Bay on a sunny Saturday, Sam Forbes has been baking bread at his bakery, Shelly Bay Baker, since three o’clock this morning. The Welsh-born chef turned baker pours a bag of organic wheat into the flour mill, watching it grind. Inside the bakery, his bakers Kathryn Walker and James Dwight shape pieces of dough into oblong loaves, then slice lines across the back of each sourdough with a razor. Next, they line the loaves up on a heavy metal tray, and push it into the oven. In the next 40 minutes, the steaming oven will bake 120 loaves. Fourteen different varieties of bread are baked here, mainly sourdough, seeded and wholemeal breads, baguettes, bagels, and ciabatta.

This picture is not unique: around the city and in the suburbs, artisan bread is becoming big business, as Wellingtonians relish buying fresh-baked bread directly from the baker who handcrafted it.

In Shelly Bay, as cyclists in lycra whizz by on the main road, a customer pulls up in his car to buy his Saturday loaf. Shelly Bay Baker has no sign out the front, and most of the 1,100 loaves baked since 3am will go to wholesale customers and to markets: Harbourside Markets on Sunday, Newtown and the Hutt markets on Saturday, and markets at Victoria University campuses during the week. “Saturday is a big baking day,” says Sam, who set up the bakery two years ago.

This could be a scene straight from a small French village. There is something romantic about buying fresh bread straight from the source. Sam agreed. “We’re trying to bring back the idea of the local baker.” He says people are seeking a sense of community and want to know where a product comes from.

Beside the flour mill, bags of organic wheat are piled on the floor. Sam has just ordered three tonnes of wheat from the same Marton grower, Suzie Rea, and put in an order for 30 tonnes for next season. The stainless steel mill can grind 25 kilograms in about 30 minutes, producing fresh stone-ground flour. “This process adds some time and effort, but the breads that result are well worth it,” he says.

Sam started his bakery with a small, bench-top flour mill before buying this larger mill from the United States. “I mill my own flour for the flavour. It’s just so much better. It means every loaf we bake is made of flour that has been freshly stone-ground that morning.”

One of nine children, Sam grew up eating white, store-bought bread. He began cooking at the age of 10, went to cookery school, and worked with Gordon Ramsey in London. He arrived in Wellington in 2013, and had stints cooking at Capitol and then The Larder. While working for Larder chef Jacob Brown, Sam first began kneading dough. “I was baking bread for the restaurant three or four days a week. I then had an epiphany that I should bake bread as a career,” he says.

While some other artisan bakers are self-taught, Sam did a bread baking course in San Francisco, and visited bakeries around the United States before he launched his business. Jacob was an initial shareholder and helped with its early days, before Sam struck out on his own.

Today, about 60 per cent of his bread goes to wholesale customers, and restaurants and cafes on the Miramar Peninsula and in Te Aro. Sam likes the idea of making for a local market, and reducing his food miles.               

“It’s less about the final product and more about creating relationships with the farmer and our customers. Yes, I think what we do has commercial potential. The only issue is you can get a loaf of bread at the supermarket for $2 and we charge about $8, so people can question that.”

Another rising artisan bakery is Wellington Sourdough, operating in Left Bank. Its co-owner, Catherine Adams, is a pastry chef who made her name in Sydney making passionfruit pavlova for restaurants belonging to the Rockpool group. Born in Featherston, Catherine spent 20 years working as a pastry chef in Sydney. She returned home in 2014 to make desserts at Whitebait, since closed, which was owned by her sister and brother-in-law, Louise and Paul Hoather.

Catherine also started making sourdough for Whitebait and its sister restaurant, Charley Noble. She was self-taught, and says: “I was dessert-focussed but they wanted bread, so we had a bread starter, and I learned on the job. I loved the challenge of learning something new and it’s nice to focus on a tight range of product.”

In her stylish, purpose-built bakery, Starta Bread Kitchen & Shop, husband Matt Whiteman is out the front, selling sandwiches and fresh loaves to customers. Catherine soaks seeds she will add tomorrow to breads such as her spelt and sprouted rye with sesame loaf. She loves the moment when the room starts filling up with baking smells. “It’s so satisfying, especially when the loaves start crackling. They say that the bread is singing,” she smiles.

Matt thinks customers are drawn to the romance of the handmade bread story. They can look through into the kitchen and see dough being made, hand-shaped into loaves, then pulled out of ovens. “This type of bread has been around for ages, but industrialisation meant you can make a factory loaf in three hours, as opposed to the three days it can take making artisan loaves.”

Catherine says she is still learning – even though her loaves on the bakery shelves look like the work of an expert. “Something can change from one day to the next – there can be an element of surprise sometimes depending on the humidity and getting the temperature right. It can all be challenging.”

Is it commercially successful? Matt nods, but says he thinks the market has a ceiling as there is only so much artisan bread that Wellingtonians can eat.

“I feel strongly that bread should not be a luxury item. It should be readily available to the majority of people. We could move to machinery, but then it becomes a factory. That’s not something we want to do.” Their bread is also sold at Moore Wilson’s, and feeds diners at Loretta, Floriditas, Bresolin, Scopa, and Atlas, while Customs cafe serves their sourdough toast with caramelised butter.

Catherine adds: “We make something we feel strongly about by hand. It’s labour intensive. Each loaf takes a lot of people and a lot of time.”

Supplying their own restaurant was the motivation behind Leeds Street Bakery, set up by brothers Jesse Simpson and Shepherd Elliott. Originally, they tried to bake their own bread and all their baked goods at Ti Kouka Cafe on Willis Street. However, they ran out of room in the kitchen, and so Leeds Street Bakery was born. Today, head baker Jack O’Donnell bakes for both Shepherd and Ti Kouka, along with a range of other Wellington cafes and restaurants and also supplying Commonsense Organics.

The story tracing the bread back to the farmer or grower is also important at Leeds Street Bakery, according to Shepherd, who says: “In our most popular bread, we use biodynamically grown and milled wholemeal wheat flour grown on the Canterbury plains. The flour is milled to order on the farm where it is grown, then shipped straight to us full of amazing flavour and vigorous biota.”

“Being a small, family-owned business, it is all about building and maintaining positive and sustainable relationships with both the people and terroir that make what we do possible.”

While these bakeries offer both wholesale and retail sales, it’s a different story at Baker Gramercy in Berhampore, which is primarily a retail destination. Owner and self-taught baker James Whyte set up his bakery six years ago, concerned he couldn’t find a decent crust in the city.

Baker Gramercy is now a destination, and, says James, a weekday or weekend ritual for many living in Berhampore and the eastern suburbs.

Concerned about nutrition and gut health, customers increasingly want sourdough bread – bread that is good for them. For example, his campani loaf is simple, containing flour, water and salt. “People want to get away from generic, mass-produced products. There has been a push as people want to eat bread and baked goods that have integrity and flavour,” says James.

“Our customers can see what we are making. It allows them to connect with us and the food we make, which is what we all want.”  


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