Woodfired cooking, if you’ll excuse the pun, is so hot right now. But while eateries like Bread in Common, Manuka Woodfire Kitchen, Monsterella, and Canteen Pizza are among the Perth restaurants championing the ancient cooking method, woodfired ovens have long featured in the city’s culinary history. In the early 1900s, woodfired ovens supplied the majority of Perth’s baked goods.
In the 1930s there were at least four in operation on a single block in downtown Maylands, yet the only allusion to this local culinary history (until recently) was a nearby alleyway called Bakers Lane. Then came baker Andrew Ritchie, who located one of these derelict ovens, restored it and used it to lay the foundation of his business The Woodfired Baker in late 2011.
First fired in 1920, the imposing brick and steel Metters ‘Three Quarter Scotch’-style oven was built by the Rosbaches, a German immigrant family whose descendants still live in the area today. During World War II, the family members were interned on Rottnest Island as “enemy aliens”, and the oven was leased to another operator until the family’s return in 1945.
In the ‘50s, then-owner Jed Aldridge “modernised” operations by eschewing the traditional woodfire and heating the oven with a diesel-fuelled flamethrower (this was, apparently, a common practise at the time). It might have cut the length of the baking process down from six hours to 30 minutes, but you have to imagine it affected the taste of the bread. It may well have, as the business closed in 1957 and the oven sat unused for more than 50 years.
Current owner Ritchie has been baking professionally for 25 years. For the last seven, he’s been using the impressive vintage oven to turn out some of the finest sourdough bread in the city. Thankfully he’s passed on the diesel cannon and reverted to the more traditional woodfire heat source. Weighty, dense in texture, with a thick crust and slight tang (the result of a 12 hour fermentation process), what comes out of its heavy doors is about as far away from a mass-produced supermarket loaf as you can get.
But why bother finding and restoring what is essentially a museum piece and subjecting yourself to the taxing, inexact nature of woodfired cooking? Stoking a fire for hours on end is hard work, and temperatures in the bakehouse can top 50 degrees Celsius at the height of summer. For Ritchie, the results justify the hard graft.
“I really love the manual labour side of it,” he says. “There’s no substitute for taking your time and using your hands to make a really high-quality product. It’s really satisfying, and the extra time and effort it takes really shows up in the bread.”
Ritchie fell in love with artisanal woodfired baking in 2004 while working at New Norcia Bakery. Inspired to open a woodfired bakery of his own, he knew that the perfect oven for him already existed – he just had to find it. Scouring the city for over six years looking for one to resurrect, he eventually came across The Old Bakery Gallery on Eighth Avenue in Maylands.
Unlike a couple of gutted examples he’d come across during his search, the oven at the rear of the defunct art gallery was intact. After a quick inspection, Ritchie knew he had found a home for his dream business. He also knew that opening it wasn’t going to be easy.
“It was a bit hair-raising climbing inside to clean the thing out with six tonnes of insulating sand overhead,” he says of the restoration work. “After sitting there for the best part of a century, we weren’t sure if the roof would hold once we started banging about.”
But luck and structural integrity were both on Ritchie’s side, and after considerable repairs – including resealing, removing and replacing the tiles and baking surface, repairing the firebox and restoring the metalwork - the oven was back in action.
After five years perfecting his bread, Ritchie opened a shopfront and cafe on Whatley Crescent in 2017, adding a range of pastries and other baked goods to his repertoire. While the danishes, croissants, cakes, brownies, pies and sausage rolls are a welcome addition, it’s the bread that remains the cornerstone of the business. Available in white, grain, sourdough, wholemeal and rye, each loaf is made with organic flour and a wild yeast starter.
As for the future: after the success of the cafe venture, Ritchie is considering opening a second venue. He also hints at hosting baking lessons and expanding the use of the oven beyond traditional baked goods.
“We’re really looking at getting that fire flavour into our products,” he says. “We’re looking at firing some meats and other things like that in the future.”
The Woodfired Baker
194 Whatley Crescent, Maylands
(08) 6248 4716
Weds to Mon 7am–4pm