How David Alan and Margaret Carey from Flinders Sourdough settled on a sea change in search of the perfect sourdough culture.
David Alan and Margaret Carey were scientists studying wine fermentation and working in Heathcote at one of Victoria’s largest wineries. For years they’d studied wine fermentation, the process in which grapes – when mixed in the right temperature and circumstance and left in barrels – turn slowly into sweet, acidic, beautiful wines. But when they started in the wine industry, their romantic vision of making small vintages that changed depending on the conditions of the season was dashed.
In the commercial wine industry, buyers are forever looking for consistency. So on many of the big vineyards, the best grapes of the year are mixed with the worst and finished with a healthy dose of sulphur. The result is consistent, palatable, cheap to make, and consumed on mass.
After a time on the vineyard, David and Margaret found a new hobby. One afternoon at home, they started a culture for sourdough bread – a simple process of combining flour, yeast, and water in a small jar and leaving it overnight. It’s the same process, at one time or another, every bakery in the world has gone through. It’s called creating the mother dough, and its flavour varies depending on the type of ingredients, the temperature, and the time it’s left to ferment.
Once you’ve created the mother dough it can stay with you forever. With just one teaspoon of that culture, you can create a commercial quantity of dough with the same sweetness, acidity or sourness as the culture you created on day one in just a few hours. It’s one of life’s perfect circles, and five years ago David fell in love with the idea of creating his own perfect mother dough.
“There’s a great little bakery in Trentham called Red Beard Bakery, and we stopped in there one day because it had one of these great wood-fired ovens,” says David, sitting at the wooden table in the middle of his bakery in Flinders. “Before that we were looking at starting a more conventional bakery with modern equipment. But then we found these two brothers running this original bakery, and I just loved the absolute integrity of their product and the way they produced it. So we let them know we wanted to start something like them. They were really helpful, and we volunteered a few nights at the bakery to learn the process.”
Today in Victoria, there are very few bakeries (David believes less than five) using the original method of baking, which is to bake bread on the heat of a cooling wood-fired oven. When David and Margaret decided to make bread this way, they knew they’d have to settle where an oven was. It just so happened that they found one in Flinders.
At Flinders Sourdough, every day is almost the same. They heat the oven with stacks of timber. In the middle of the day the staff gather round a big wooden table and roll all of the loaves for the next day.
“We only use three ingredients: flour and water, and yeast. There are no dough improvers, no extra gluten, and nothing to hold it and bind it together,” says David. “We create really slack, wet dough, so our staff have to be really nimble with their hands.”
When the oven reaches the right temperature (about 400 degrees), they put the first loves in. “You put in your first doughs that you want to bake really quick and hot, so we’ll start our Viennas. They are a lighter loaf that bakes straight on the bricks of the oven, and they only bake for about 14 minutes,” he says. “By the end of the night, we’ll be putting in our wholegrain heavy rise, and the oven will have dropped from 300 degrees right down to 200 degrees. Then they will be in there for over an hour.”
This September, David and Margaret will celebrate their fifth year at Flinders Sourdough. They’ve gained a reputation throughout Victoria for their authentic flavour and integrity of their baking process. Along with selling bread from the bakery, David and Margaret travel across the state to sell the loaves at farmers’ markets.
“Five years in and we still love it. You still get that real joy of the day’s production,” he says before stepping back into the bakery to start tomorrow’s loaves. “It’s just got every element of realness to it. There’s nothing mundane, no shortcuts, and nothing easy about it. That’s what really keeps it so interesting and engaging.”