Just about all of us eat bread or some version of it. Vegetarian, vegan or omnivore, intolerances accounted for and accommodated, the term ‘Our Daily Bread’ is a cliché that carries truth. In the last five years the production and availability of artisan breads around Melbourne has been changing and increasing to meet the demands of a smarter consumer who is far more aware of what they’re eating. Their awareness of provenance of meats and seasonality of fruit and veg is routine and for many, bread is the basis of many meals and needs to be of the same quality as the rest of the food they eat.

Artisan baking is based on the art of creating sourdough breads and working with natural leven (also known as the starter or the mother). The leven a bakery works with could be considered its signature – a thumbprint of sorts – as no two levens are the same. It is made from equal quantities of flour and water, which are combined and then left out to allow the naturally occurring yeasts in the atmosphere to feed on the starches in the flour. As the leven grows, every few days its quantity is halved and fed with more flour. After about 10 days it may be ready to use in a dough to make breads but it is then fed and maintained for as long as it’s needed; many bakeries work with levens started when they opened their shops many years ago.

Like all breads, the dough needs proving time (time for the gases from the yeasts in the leven to be released and rise) and as the leven is natural it takes longer to do this than with breads that are mass-produced using commercial yeasts. This is where time plays an important part in the artisan bread-making process; the natural leven needs to work on its own terms and the baker working with it needs to understand its process implicitly.

Shaun Hudson, an artisan baker at the Abbotsford Convent Bakery, is clearly excited by what’s been happening in his industry in the last few years. “It’s great to have customers knowing more about what they want and wanting better quality,” he says.

Hudson has been a baker for the last five years and his enthusiasm for his trade is infectious. When asked what the word artisan means to him he lights up: “it’s about time, taking time to make something really good.”

Being a baker at the Convent Bakery means that Hudson gets to bake with the enormous wood-fired oven that was built in the convent kitchen for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd back in 1901. The oven can cook around 120 loaves at a time and is fuelled primarily by red gum and yellow box woods. “It’s fantastic,” Hudson explains, “like driving a manual car as opposed to an automatic: you have to think about it a little more but once you get used to it, it’s easy and very satisfying.”

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Like the same grape variety in the hands of two different wine makers, two doughs made by different bakers following the same recipe will have a different outcome. “There’s many reasons for this,” says Tez Kemp, owner of artisan bakery La Madre in Geelong. “The geographical location of the bakery will determine the water quality and then there’s the ambient temperature of the room you’re baking in as well as the quality of the flour and its strength.”

It’s not just about making a dough and rolling it out; artisan baking takes many years to learn – a four-year apprenticeship – and starts slowly. “We have apprentices start,” says Kemp, “and they don’t begin by rolling out dough, they start by counting loaves. It’s a long process to learn it properly.”

But what is it in the chewy crust and textured loaf of sourdough breads that keeps us coming back for more. Kemp thinks it’s mainly about the consumer’s growing passion and knowledge. “People in Melbourne are so interested in where their food comes from and bread is one of the basics; people are very passionate about good bread.”

So passionate about good bread is Kemp and his partner Anna Spurling that they bought La Madre three years ago. Neither is a qualified baker; rather, they are business people with “a crazy love of bread”. The pair jumped at the opportunity to take over the bakery, says Kemp, noting that it was important to them both “to maintain the legacy of what the previous owner had done.” Kemp trained with the former owner for six months and has a core of talented bakers who create their sourdoughs – they have a starter that was made 10 years ago and they’ve kept it going since.

Tony Dench, baker and co-owner of Dench Bakery in North Fitzroy and the recently opened Bread and Jam for Frances in Hawthorn, also believes that it’s Melbourne’s love and knowledge of good food that has fed the culture into good breads. “Food is appreciated more in Melbourne [compared to] what I’ve seen elsewhere,” he says. “In North Fitzroy, we have a few bakeries around us and we all do well, which shows that there’s room for everyone.”

Dench’s customers keeps standards high. “The odd occasion we have a bad batch, our customers tell us,” Dench says. “But I like that. They won’t accept B-standard, which is good for us and them.”

Dench trained in Melbourne at some of the best-known bakeries (including Natural Tucker, Babka and Baker D Chirico) before starting Dench in 2005 with his father, two of his brothers and his brother-in-law. His motivation for working the long hours it takes to create good bread and to run a small business is simple: “I really enjoy making something with my hands.”

We’ve made a list of who we consider to be the best bakeries around town producing great artisan loaves; we’ve also asked what their best sellers are to see what Melbourne’s eating.

Baker D. Chirico
Shop 3-4, 149 Fitzroy Street St Kilda
(03)9534 3777
Most popular: casalinga bianco; wholewheat loaf; white sourdough.

84 Bay Street Port Melbourne
9646 9555
Most popular: multigrain loaf; baguettes; white sourdough.

358 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
(03)9416 4485
Most popular: white sourdough; egg bread; rye sourdough.

The Convent Bakery
Abbotsford Convent, 1 Saint Helliers Street
1300 447 697
Most popular: white sourdough; light rye sourdough.

La Madre
18 Milton Street Bell Park
(03) 5272 1727
Most popular: seeded sourdough; rye currant and walnut loaf; ciabatta.

Dench Bakers
109 Scotchmer Street, Fitzroy North
(03) 9486 3554
Most popular: grain loaf; house stone loaf; ciabatta.