Saturday, May 15, 2010

The craft of Mr Bickle

My grandfather was a baker with his own bakery in Sydney's inner west. If you spoke to any of his customers they'd tell you that Mr Bickle made the best bread in Sydney. He was respected in his craft - during WWII and the era of food rationing the government had consulted him about breadmaking, flour quality and other elements of his craft. He'd retired by the time I was born, and my grandparents bought their bread from their local baker on the northern beaches, or the supermarket. Pop didn't go in for making his own after retirement. Can't blame him after 40 years on the job I guess!

Except for once. I was ten, and our school teacher wanted us to learn about bread and we were given an assignment to bake a loaf of bread. Our teacher would judge the loaves in a competition. Parents were allowed help. In my case, Pop did the work and I watched and learned. I'd never seen him in action before; his arms were still strong and wiry as he kneaded and pulled the dough until it became elastic and pliable. The smell of the baking bread in the kitchen was divine (Mum didn't bake her own either so it was a first for our kitchen.) As far as I can recall he just used plain flour from the supermarket to make this lovely loaf - supermarkets didn't sell strong flour back then. It didn't surprise me when Pop's loaf was judged the best.

Pop's bread in his baking heyday contained no preservatives, unlike today's bread. However, even so, it didn't go mouldy for lack of chemicals either as supermarket bread does today. I suspect that the wheat grown more than 55 years ago didn't have the wealth of pesticides and other much sprayed onto it that today's wheat gets to ensure the harvest is as big as can be. A lot of the fertilisers and pesticides available today hadn't been invented then - and thank heavens for that, really!

Even bread you buy today at owner-run bakeries is pretty well rubbish for the most part (and supermarket bread is DEFINITELY crap). The wheat that makes the flour has been loaded with toxins as it grows, both sprayed on and in the soil. T'other Half and I still buy the supermarket or bakery stuff though for the most part. Around here the choices for organic bread aren't great. There are frozen organic spelt loaves in the local health food store but the flavour seems to have been frozen out of them.

I do bake my own bread from time to time - you have to set aside half a day for it, although you can work and do other things while the dough is proving (rising). Getting organic flour hasn't been the easiest around here until fairly recently. Organic plain flour is available in the supermarkets, organic wholemeal (which I prefer) is much harder to find although I notice our health food store has it in occasionally and the health food section of the supermarket had it last week, so I stocked up. Organic strong bakers' flour, should I wish to make white bread, doesn't seem to exist. My oven is a cantankerous thing, too - it's feast or famine, or rather burnt or undercooked depending on the oven's capriciousness on the day. I have to add half an hour to any baked dinner I make and bread can be quite hit or miss. Hence home bread baking doesn't happen as often as it should in this house.

But today was Farmers' Market day - hurrah!! We have Farmers' Markets five minutes' drive away once a month, and there is a bread seller there from a bakery up the coast with a range of superb organic breads. They aren't cheap - I paid $8 for a loaf of rustic sourdough (at left), and $9 for a loaf of spelt, which is frankly bloody ridiculous - but the flavour and texture leaves commercial breads for dead. I'm sure there is cheaper organic bread to be had in Sydney but not around this part of town, and driving halfway across Sydney to save a couple of dollars on bread costs a lot more in petrol.

Farmers' markets are popping up all over Sydney, giving a fresh and usually organic alternative to supermarkets, and it's a good thing. I like to buy directly from the farmers; you know you're getting fresh stuff which hasn't been in cold storage for weeks, and the farmers are getting the money directly. Five or so years ago there were only a handful of farmers' markets/organic markets, now there are several in each region of the city. Some of them - like the Fox Studios market - are huge affairs where you are really dazzled for choice.

My mother thinks I'm mad in my quest to seek out good organic food. "Organic!' she snorts contemptuously. "Overpriced rubbish! WE never had organic food in MY day!" But as I point out to her, when she was a girl and young woman a lot of the food she ate would have been close to organic, or at least it would have had far fewer chemicals sprayed onto it. In an era before refrigerators were commonplace, fruit and veg would have truly been only seasonally available, and you would have shopped several times a week for the freshest stuff. (My mother is 85 next month... so I'm talking 1920s-1950s.)

So now I have a fruit bowl full of this season's apples - Pink Lady apples, some with the vestige of a stem still attached. They are a little lumpy and misshapen, unlike supermarket apples. They aren't perfect to look at, but the flavour is so intense it makes you delirious. I have the last of this season's tomatoes, smaller than they were last month at the markets, but still full of flavour. I have pumpkins and carrots and autumn's harvest in general.For my bounty, I paid less than I would have at the local greengrocer. My kitchen smells of fresh produce. I have washed-rind and cheddar cheese worthy of a French fromagerie. From the organic saltbush lamb man we have lamb steaks and chops which melt in your mouth, from the Hunter Valley meat man a whole half rump which I know from experience will make the tenderest steaks. We have a months' worth of meat now (we don't eat meat every day).

And best of all I have the bread. The loaves are unsliced, and the bread seller recommended slicing them before freezing the loaf if we weren't going to scoff them all in a couple of days. I've just finished slicing them (and having to have a taste along the way). Mr Bickle would have been proud to have made them; the texture is perfect, the loaves are dense and heavy. In a mass production world it's good to know that the craft of Mr Bickle is a lot more than just pre-mixed flour blends churned out by people who haven't even done a baker's apprenticeship, and that there is a growing number of people like me who demand old-fashioned artisan bread without all the chemicals.

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