Nonie Dwyer found herself in an unusual predicament. As a chef at the River Cottage food empire in the UK, she was tasked with balancing flavours and making sure her meals tasted delicious. But as someone with coeliac disease (where the immune system reacts abnormally to gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats), she couldn’t taste or eat a lot of what she was making.
Still, this didn’t stop her from learning how to make bread from scratch, and she eventually fell in love with the whole process. “It’s almost got a spirituality about it. Like how coffee makers have all these rituals – bread making can be a bit of the same and I was hooked,” she tells Broadsheet.
While the range of gluten-free food on the market has grown in the 25 years since she was diagnosed, Dwyer still felt there was something lacking. Gluten-free breads were filling a much-needed niche, but the products didn’t exhibit the care and consideration of flavour she was looking for.
That’s how Dwyer’s wholesale bakery, Nonie’s Food, was born. From its Botany headquarters in Sydney’s south-east her team makes gluten- and dairy-free breads and pantry staples, mainly supplied to cafes and restaurants, though also available through specialty retailers. The range now includes four breads, pita, muesli and buckwheat crackers, but when she started in 2014, it was with one product: a seedy brown bread with linseed, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and poppy seeds. It was a long process to get it from conceptualisation to market, with a lot of recipe development in between.
“When it comes to gluten-free flour, it’s a very different set of rules and techniques. In some ways it was a help to have that previous [bread-making] experience, and in other ways it [would have helped] to start everything from scratch,” she says. “I baked a lot of really bad bread while I was figuring things out.”
Figuring out the principles of gluten-free baking was tough. Also, Dwyer figured that to make successful gluten-free bread, it had to be as bread-like as possible.
“[Gluten] is just the most wonderful and helpful protein. It’s the root of all the things we associate with bread: the flexibility, structure, architecture, softness, crust. All of those things,” she says. “There’s no one gluten-free substitute, so you really need to understand the different options there are and the best combination to use.”
The seedy brown bread was soon followed by a light golden bread with linseed (the closest Nonie’s has to a plain white bread); a black activated-charcoal and quinoa bread; and a fruit bread with figs, orange, sultanas and almonds.
Dwyer doesn’t use preservatives or gums, and because gluten-free flours deteriorate quickly after being baked, the products are frozen after they come out of the oven. “It seems funny to be freezing fresh bread […] but this means it’s always going to be at its best. I designed this with chefs in mind, and I knew if I were that chef then I’d want to know it can be good from one day to a few weeks later,” she says.
It was a good call – chefs across the city have been using her breads for years. Nonie’s is being served in venues such as A1 Canteen, Blackwood Pantry, Cornersmith Annandale, Opera Bar, Rising Sun Workshop, Ruby Lane Manly and Mona Vale, The Grounds of Alexandria and of the City, and The Pacific Club Bondi Beach.
Though fellow chefs have given her products a great reception, it’s the feedback from customers that really makes Dwyer’s day. Hearing from others with coeliac disease reminds her of the reason she began selling gluten-free bread in the first place.
“We randomly hear from people who say these products have changed their lives in small and wonderful ways,” she says. “We have customers who haven’t eaten bread in 10, 20, maybe even 30 years and finally they’ve found something they love and enjoy – it’s pretty magical to hear that.”
Nonie’s Food is available through select grocers (including Two Providores, Berkelo, Cornersmith Picklery, Doorstep Organics and Feather and Bone, or at the Carriageworks Farmers Market on the first and third Saturdays of the month.
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