It’s not the easiest of Monday mornings at Firebrand Bakery in Ripponlea. Heating the 80-year-old wood-fired oven at the back of the shop has taken longer than usual thanks to the cold weather and the bread will be out of the oven half an hour later than expected. Built in 1930, the oven absorbs cold as much as it absorbs heat, so after a weekend’s rest the flames need to throw themselves around a little longer to get it to the right heat. The old barometer next to the enormous oven reads 550F.
“We don’t really rely on that,” says owner and baker, Dave Brown. “We know how the oven should feel and then it’s ready.”
It’s little wonder. Brown has been working with the oven for the last 25 years and along with his staff (in the bakery that’s Jason McLaren, who’s been with Brown for a decade) has garnered an intrinsic understanding of its ways, and as a result, their product. So much so that temperature, structure and measurements don’t matter – it’s all about feeling. From the heat of the oven to the touch of the dough, Firebrand Bakery have been doing things their own way since the start and we haven’t found anything else much like it.
David Brown used to be a maths teacher many years ago, and while he’s not specific about when he started baking bread in wood-fired ovens (“for years for other people”), Brown decided to go out on his own in the mid-80s and went looking for his own bakery.
The hunt for a building that houses a wood-fired oven has a strict criteria. “They’re always around railway stations because that was the only way they could get their flour back then,” he says. “You look for the chimney and then you look for this bracing.” Brown takes me outside to show me to long steel brackets bolted vertically onto the outside of the brick building, obviously support for the oven inside.
When Brown found the building at Ripponlea, it was being used as a book distributor’s office. The oven had no roof over it but these days, after early renovations, it sits cosily in the back of the long narrow building. Firebrand got a lot of media attention back in its early days, but Brown stopped answering calls after a while as he didn’t want to have to explain something so close to him. Firebrand is innate beyond the job; it’s simply very much a part of who Dave Brown is.
The oven is lit every morning around 5am and heats while the dough is proving. “While the fire’s going it’s drawing through, going rapidly, heading towards the chimney,” Brown explains. “The flames are hitting every part of the oven, like a flame thrower.”
This intense, wild fire needs to subside for baking, “The fire’s not going while we’re baking,” explains Brown, “so it’s got to heat the oven for about four hours to saturate it with heat and then we let it settle down and even out. And because sourdough takes a long time to rise anyway, we just fit it in so they’re both ready at the same time.”
The oven, which can house up to 160 loaves at any one time, also houses a metre of sand around the base of the bricks, which holds the residual heat.
This is a bakery that absolutely operates to the beat of its own drum. Fresh bread for the day comes out of the oven around 1pm, “You tell people that,” says McLaren, “but they still come in the morning wondering where the fresh bread is.”
Bread that doesn’t sell by the end of the afternoon is sold the next morning for toast, but it’s still good for sandwiches. Brown’s daughter Lily works the convection oven, making cakes, slices and pizzas that sit in the front window throughout the day.
Sourdough bread is made from a leaven and every bakery that creates sourdough uses their own leaven, which gives their bread its own character. Brown’s leaven for Firebrand is over 30 years old and made from flour and water. The only ingredients in his sourdoughs – there’s casalinga (white), wholewheat, schwarzbrot (100 per cent rye) among others – are flour, water and salt and that’s why the depth of understanding for making such a consistently good product goes beyond the realm of writing down measurements.
Is bread from a wood-fired oven better than breads from ovens run by gas or electricity? Brown can’t answer directly, as he acknowledges he only eats his own bread so has nothing to compare it to, but he trusts his methods implicitly. “Everything we do is done by touch and feel,” he offers. “There’s no thermometers, we don’t trust them. I’d rather know how we’ve heated the oven than what’s on the dial. It’s about heat, not temperature. They’re two different things.”
That said, McLaren is adamant that wood-fired bread is superior to other breads. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t,” he says. “If it was easy I wouldn’t be here. It’s because it’s really hard to make and nobody understands how much work is in getting flour, water and salt and making it into bread.”
“When I’m making the breads,” he says, “I trust my hands.”
69 Glen Eira Road,
(03) 9523 0061
Mon to Thu 9am–6pm