It’s been almost 15 years since Nick Anthony and his wife Laurence opened La Tartine, Australia’s first certified organic sourdough bakery. Back then, it was hard to find proper sourdough or breads raised using natural yeasts. Now these Central Coast-based artisans have a huge following, from market-goers to restaurants and organic grocers all over Sydney.

Making bread had never occurred to Nick as a way to make a living. He was working as a ski-technician in Colorado when he met his French wife and they planned to open a ski shop after they married in Australia. But things changed.

“We grew tired of skiing and didn’t want to run a strictly seasonal business,” says Nick. “I started working with Laurence’s cousin in his La Tartine bakery in the Haute-Savoie region of the French Alps. He made traditional pain au levain with its classic thick crust and chewy texture, using nothing but organic stone-ground flour, spring water and Brittany sea salt. It was beautiful and I fell in love with the whole process.”

They bought a share in the bakery and after 10 years of baking baguettes, ryes and wholemeal loaves for the Savoyards, they decided to move to Australia with their two daughters and set up their own sourdough bakery in Wisemans Ferry.

Nick was determined to make bread just as he had done in France. It took him three months to design and build the wood-fired oven. He even built his own setter (a rotary loading device for rolling bread into the deck oven that would eventually take over from the wood-fired version). If he didn’t make it, he imported it.

Organic flour from Gunnedah, filtered tap water and Murray River salt are all that make up a La Tartine loaf this side of the equator. The sourdough process starts off with a natural leaven (or levain) comprising flour and water that is left to ferment with the help of naturally occurring airborne yeasts. Once this leaven is mixed with more flour and water to make a dough, Nick and his team of four cut, weigh and shape the loaves by hand, then leave them to prove for up to seven hours before loading them into the deck oven.

It’s the lengthy fermentation that gives the bread its distinctive sourness. But sourdough is more than just a sour bread, says Jan Hackenberg, one of the passionate bakers at La Tartine. “A properly fermented sourdough made from a natural leaven that is left to prove slowly is much easier for the body to digest,” he says. “This is how we are meant to eat bread. You can always tell a slow-fermented loaf by the air bubbles all over the crust. A lot of commercial ‘sourdoughs’ are nothing more than yeasted breads with added vinegar to create a sour flavour.”

Another big tick for health is their flour, which is ground by stone to be creamy in colour and coarse in texture, unlike modern powdery roller-milled flour stripped of the nutrient-rich wheatgerm and bran. It’s this certified organic flour that Nick is proud to make into La Tartine loaves. “We’re passionate about organic practices and having certification gives us strong credibility,” says Nick. “If it’s not certified, it’s not organic. There are already too many out there bastardising the industry with organic claims.”

Such time, care and attention to detail means that they work from the crack of dawn until late at night. It’s one reason why Nick and Laurence find it hard to add to their team. It’s a tough way to make a living, but the rewards are many. “I’ll never forget one very stormy morning at the Pyrmont Growers Market,” says Nick. “The stallholders had been told not to come, but we had 700 loaves to sell, so we went anyway. We arrived to hordes of people going berserk waiting for our bread. There was no time to set up. We had to sell from the back of the van. We love seeing people’s faces at markets just as we do when they turn up at the bakery.”

Nick and Laurence open the bakery doors to the public every Friday at 3pm to people eager to buy everything from multigrain and spelt tins to sesame boules and almond-studded fruit loaves. While we might never have quite the same relationship with bread as the French do, it seems the power of good bread is reaching more people all the time.

Nick and Laurence sell at Eveleigh, Pyrmont, Castle Hill, North Sydney and Manly markets, in addition to food co-ops, specialist food shops and cafes around Sydney.

La Tartine
2/111 Wisemans Ferry Road, Somersby
(02) 4340 0299