FOR THE LAST 14 years Les Bartlett has aspired to produce the best bread possible. At his artisanal bakery at Crystal Waters Village in Conondale, he has been honing his craft in harmony with the environmental variables of heat and humidity. Recently, he took delivery of a small mill, which will enable him to mill his own flour – yet another development in his quest for perfection.
Les’s mentor and designer of his oven, Alan Scott, believed that business should be about “policy with principles, commerce with morality, wealth with work, and science with humanity.”
Similarly, Les has created an enterprise that operates according to his strong principles. This means he eschews shortcuts and modern technology, where possible, and instead opts for traditional methods, such as continuing to mix his doughs by hand – believing that hand-mixed dough is of a higher quality – despite bouts of repetitive strain injury.
So why is Les’s bread so wonderful? The answer is in the method he uses, and how it transforms flour and water (and a bit of salt) into something both nutritious and delicious.
Just as organic vegetables would have been known by our ancestors as simply ‘vegetables’, there was a time in
, Australia when sourdough was called simply ‘bread’. Then, bakers were not reliant on any external source for their yeast (traditionally bakeries relied on yeast from breweries).
The term ‘sourdough’ is a word we acquired from America and in Australia we now associate this word with naturally leavened breads devoid of added chemicals.
Sourdough is made by mixing flour, water, salt and other optional ingredients, together with starter. The starter is a mixture of grains and liquid (usually flour and water) inhabited by lactose bacteria and so-called ‘wild’ yeasts, which leaven and flavour the bread dough.
Authentic sourdoughs are fermented for up to eight hours, during which the yeasts break down the starch in the flour into simple sugars and then into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The lactobacilli feed on the products of the yeasts and produce lactic acid, which breaks down the gluten into easily digested amino acids. Depending on the length of fermentation, up to 90% of the gluten is broken down. This means that some sourdough is suitable for people who are gluten intolerant, although it is not recommended for coeliacs.
The flavor and degree of sourness of sourdough bread depends on many factors including the temperature, length of fermentation and, most importantly, the particular strains of yeast and lactobacilli that live in the starter.
Thus, a sourdough baker is very careful with and protective of his starter. In fact, it is not uncommon for a baker’s starter to have been handed down from generation to generation.
Another important factor is the type(s) of grain used and, therefore, the flour – a good baker knows his flour’s protein level and enzymatic activity, to name just a few qualities. Organic, and particularly stoneground flours have the most desirable organoleptic properties, that is, upon analysis they generally taste, smell, look and feel the best.
And so Les’s journey to the nirvana of good bread has brought him to his desire to produce his own stoneground flour. After much research, including visiting a number of mills in the UK, he decided on a small portable stone mill from Austria.
A striking piece of furniture in its own right, the standout feature is its simplicity, a quality that appeals enormously to Les. (mill and stone inlaid pictured left).
“It’s no more complicated than it needs to be – everything is both functional and beautifully designed,” he swoons, caressing the smooth surface.
“It’s all very basic but the Austrian craftsmanship is evident – we joked that we’re all going to have to wear lederhosen to operate it!”
Apart from the electric motor (which drives the stones) the mill could have been made 500 years ago. The key feature is the stones – two heavy, craggy wheels that crack the grain against the edges of deep grooves running through each surface.
“It will require a lot of experimentation on my part because I want to preserve full fermentation while retaining the benefits of fresh flour, which are about all the enzymes and flavor,” he explains, obviously fascinated by the science behind fermentation.
“I want to play around and just see how all those sorts of things interact.”
The next step, logically, is for Les to grow his own grain, not an easy undertaking in our climate.
“Growing is not a problem – the big challenge is harvesting it before the ripe grain gets wet and starts to germinate,” he says. “But it’s something we’re looking at.”
“It’s another part of the dream.”
For inquiries about Les’s bread, phone 07 5494 4779 or email [email protected]