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  • Writer's pictureSimeon Ayres

Bread In A Time Of Plague

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

Simeon Ayres and Kate Long.

We have been baking bread for 20 years, supplying farmers’ markets and

stores, and a community of settlements around the hills in North East

Victoria. We fire an oven with timber from our woodlot, we stone-mill

our own grain, we make slow-fermented real bread. Sometimes, a lucky

customer will find a piece of charcoal peeking from the crust of their loaf.

In winter, when it is 3°C outside and driving grey sleet, there is no place

lovelier than in front of the oven, the glow of orange light playing on your

skin, heat generous beyond belief.

Three years back, we gave it all up; I reckoned we had paid our karmic

debt. We’d baked 250,000 loaves. It was enough. I would write stories and

draw maps to try and make sense of the world in another way.

Then, after the bushfires, we followed the news of a virus spreading from

China, and hospital wards and makeshift reception rooms full of people

gasping for breath. When the plague reached our own shores, no one knew

where it would lead, how many lives it could take, what disruption it might

bring. Even out here, over the dividing range in Australia, there is a feeling

of panic. Food is rationed in the supermarket: you can only buy one packet

of pasta, one small bag of rice. Toilet paper has disappeared.

Our small community in the hills is independently minded, but wholly

plugged into global food supplies and a fluctuating market. What will

become of us when the pantry shelves empty? We’re not preppers, we’re not

survivalists, but we are practical people. If we go down, I like to think we’d

choose to go down together. A community making the slowest of descents

from the great Western dream.

What else is there to do but to fire up the oven and set the millstones

grinding, to feed a population when maybe the supermarkets can’t?

Kate, my wife, sends out the first email:

MILKWOOD BREAD IS GETTING BACK IN THE SWING.

Seems an obvious response to the current situation. The bakery is

registered again, and we have been able to source organic flour but only

conventional grain.

Due to the unique circumstances we all find ourselves in, to support

physical distancing, we are OFFERING TO DELIVER to mailboxes on

the Tableland and deliver to other areas by arrangement.

We are looking to bake once a week while social distancing etc.

continues.

After this week, Fridays will be baking/delivery day ...Hot bread in your

mailbox from 4pm. Loaf types will vary each week.

Baking will be on FRIDAY 10th ...Delivery 4pm onwards.

As well as cash we welcome home-grown poetry scrawled on anything

virus-free, small garlands of flowers, unusually shaped vegetables,

drawings, weavings, or any other form of creatively being grateful for

another day on this wonderful planet.

We also accept needed expression of grief, sadness, loneliness, howling,

nail-biting, etc. We generally don’t accept creative expression in lieu of

cash ...but ...well, blow our minds and it could be a very fair trade.

ORGANIC WHITE SOURDOUGH $6.50

TWICE PUMPKIN SOURDOUGH $6.50

SOURDOUGH HOT CROSS BUNS 6 for $8 or 12 for $16

ORDERS TO BE IN BY 9AM THURSDAY 9TH.

This is a work in progress in response to the needs of community etc.

Email me, Kate, Baker’s Wife (a hard-earned, initiated title!)

Cheers, and hope you are all tending your mental health. It’s not easy

times! Give someone a ring who you haven’t seen for a while and organise

a local walk ...even five metres apart is easy up here!

Kate and Sim.


And out the loaves go again, sprung from the hearth, sprung from the heart.

We loaded 120 loaves into the old Subaru that first week and received some

beautiful handwritten thanks, some lovely emails, some new stitches into

the weave of community. As well as sealed envelopes of washed coins or

direct debits or promissory notes.

It is the first of a series of lockdowns in Victoria, a government making

hard decisions in the face of many unknowns. The plague is out there,

moving unseen through the shadows. No one knows how it will metamor-

phise, where it will manifest. So, we are asked to stay at home. To minimise


infection, we are called to make our lives smaller.

The next week, Kate sends an email out on Monday night...breads

made... details of exchange, drop-off times. She begins to include notes on


her love of the natural world, the seasonal rhythms and thoughts on com-

munity. She begins to spin stories into our little web of bread.


Hello Everyone,

Bread creativity this week will be producing:

SPROUTED WHEAT AND RYE $6.50

STONEGROUND WHOLEMEAL $6.50

OLIVE AND ROASTED GARLIC $6.50

In the early days of Milkwood bread, we planted 500 head of garlic for

the bakery. We used to make a herb and garlic focaccia.

We did it all with the very generous help of an old Clydesdale called

Princey.

For opening the soil with the plough, we called in the help of a

neighbour’s mare – Blossom, I think her name was – and the two pulled

the plough together.

Princey only had experience in the tourist industry, but he was quick to

learn to walk the rows ...though a good few head of garlic got weeded out

with the scuffler on account of my slow instructions.

I’m sorry that this week’s garlic has nothing of the praise song of hoof

beat, chain clank, straw-and-leather collar ...as my next Clydesdale,

Spring ...she would do everything I asked to grow garlic, but I had come

to care about her opinion, and as it turns out, she is more of a philosopher

than farmer.

I could not bear to see those vacant eyes as she rested at the end of a

row, a look that reminded me of my schooling days ...bored, resentful ...

jaw set to endurance mode ...ugh. Spring does other things now, so this

week’s garlic comes from a shop. Orders in by Thursday midday, and if you are new to the bread run, please add where you are collecting the bread from.


Cheers

Kate.


In its own time our routine begins to take shape, a long firing of the old

brick oven, the mother starter brought out of hibernation and fed three

times. We are greeting the pre-dawn once more, saying praise words to the

dimming fire in the oven, setting our friendly bacteria to work. With

the mixing and kneading, the at first unruly mess is brought together into

an unexpected conversation. With the encouragement of hands, or mixer,

slowly a dough begins to take shape. Stretching gluten into long elasticated

fingers. Making space for multiplying, rising, filling that works gluten with

CO2 produced by the yeasts. If a loaf of bread were a country the size of the

Pitcairn Islands, then its population of wild yeast should be at least that of

half the world, four billion tiny people crammed together, raising caverns

and curved structures of protein.

The year turns, the lockdowns continue. A strange thing happens when

life is reduced to a smaller radius, when the focus settles on the immediate.

The quality of observation and imagination grows larger. We begin to see


patterns of growth and decay, of budding and nesting, birdsong and fledg-

ling grows louder. The world of weather patterns and life cycles moves to


the foreground.


Hello good people of the highveld and lowveld.

This week the three heron chicks took to their wings, legs dangling askew,

finally bursting through the canopy into the big blue forever.

No more hopping practices between the branches!

Done and dusted. Preened. Self-initiated into the next phase.

And me grinning ear to ear watching them return and navigate back in

amongst the branches to roost ... Not unsimilar to watching our kids when

little, trying to figure out how to stop the bike ...having just done a

majestical, wobbly first flight down the driveway ...

There are many herons flying overhead and nesting in the peppermint

gums, I feel held inside their dome of life, as it arcs overhead ...feeding

to the east, feeding to the south, feeding to the north and roosting and


nesting and feeding chicks to the west, and circling the house peering

down with the grumpy old man voices I have come to love ...

They stitch the sky with their flight. Maybe they are darning the thing.

Holding it all together ...holding me in my right place.

Oh! Sorry, it’s a bread orders email!!!

Three loaves of interesting bread, not three interesting herons.

This week (the same week the heron chicks flew!!) we offer:

SOURDOUGH BARMBRACK $7.50

ELVEN BREAD SOURDOUGH $7.00

TWICE PUMPKIN SOURDOUGH $6.50

Orders in by Thursday midday.

Delivered Friday from 3pm.



After that first good kneed, we place the dough in bowls and allow a slow

four-hour ferment. It’s time for coffee and breakfast, it’s time to put our feet

up for a while. Then we take down the bowls, and with a curved scraper

turn these heaving masses of life out onto the bench. A small miracle has

happened: life multiplies in the bowl, everything is on the increase, just like

the old prayer. The sweet off-gassing as the doughs are opened and divided,

the impressive worlds within of tunnels and caverns filling, expanding,

reaching into every space.

Then they’re dusted with flour, divided, weighed, and shaped and shaped

again and laid out on proving cloths or in tins. Another three hours for the

alchemy of wild yeast and protein, of wheat and rye and spelt and whatever

else we could imagine adding to the mix, the magic.

Over time a strange thing begins to happen. On delivery, Kate and I find

little bunches of flowers, a jar of olives, a bar of chocolate, or a bunch of

rainbow chard, a dozen eggs, a good homemade Shiraz waiting to meet us.

There are lovely notes of appreciation.

I think again about community, about who we are, and who we could be.

About how these strange times we are experiencing – and the unknowns

we may face in the future – do not need to divide us. How we are all in this

together and the change that we want in the world needs to come from

ourselves.

How gratitude doesn’t necessarily come after the act of giving but is


dark mountain · issue 23



simeon ayres and kate long


rather the attention paid to the precious lives we live. It’s like the earth be-

neath our feet, always there, whether we choose to notice or not.


Hi Everyone, This week on offer we have:

ORGANIC WHITE SOURDOUGH $6.50

POTATO AND SESAME SEED SOURDOUGH $6.50

SPELT SOURDOUGH $7.00

This seasonal change, this Springing, that has an all-around effect on

the running of the bakery. For one, the Bakers don’t huddle so close

to the oven heat ... they take their coffee out to the Paulownia tree,

next to the old dog’s grave, and watch the nesting herons.

But more than that, it’s a transitional time.

The finely choreographed dance that takes place between the rising

dough and the falling temperature of the oven is held by the musical

tempo of Winter.

There is a weakness to the yeast’s enthusiasm to rise in the Cold, like our

fingers on a frosty morning. And a strength to the Cold that saps heat

from the oven.

Sim senses, and works with, these characteristics: using a little more

wood, drawing the dough a little closer to the oven heat, starting the

dough 15 mins earlier. He tinkers (quite the hardest thing to develop as

an apprentice: The Feel of Things) and we settle into the Winter melody,

a distinct familiar rhythm ...

Then suddenly *#!SPRING!#* leaps up, cavorting a strange carnival

energy into the yeasts who rise and bulge, fast and giggling against an

oven fire that sweats and roars too hot, not tempered by Winter’s Cold

anymore. And everyone is out of sync.

All is well, if Sim is waiting for the change, sniffing the wind, listening to

the birds starting a little earlier than yesterday morning, pausing ...

‘Feel’ is a fine thing to witness in a person’s skill set.

I’m watching to see which week this seasonal tempo is going to speed up

and how the orchestra of everything that plays a part in a loaf of bread

will manage.

If we do a fine job, you’ll not notice a thing, but if we miss the small signs

and Spring leaps in and cranks up the tempo, and we are a step behind

...well, then your bread might be below par ...


We call those loaves Spring Lurch loaves and I don’t think the

supermarket sells them.

Enjoy the arriving warmth,

Kate


Loaves always talk as they are brought from the oven, they pop and crackle,

they cackle with excitement, if you care to listen. I always wonder at this

journey of the humble grains, how the process of grinding, kneading and

fire ends in this partnership, the baker’s offering to the world, a crust of

gold, a waxy uneven crumb, an aroma fit for the halls of heaven and for the

sod-roofed croft. A small offering to the gods, to the grain, to the people.

Finally, the loaves are bagged and labelled, ready to be delivered on these

quiet country roads. We might only know some of these customers through

their mailboxes and by their first names, their return emails carrying an

order, and an appreciation, and maybe some words describing their world

and their experience of it.

If you were lucky though, and there are many who were, the walk to

your mailbox on


a Friday afternoon would be akin to a prayer. You would

find waiting for you a still-warm loaf, and you might just hold the bread to

your face and breathe in the lingering aroma of roasted grain. You might

hold the loaf close to your body as you returned to your home, seeking

the last of its fading heat. You might try to resist sharing a slice or two with

butter immediately, but you would, of course, be excused for your lack of

resistance.

We hope you would say some small words of praise on eating, that your

tongue would fatten and salivate, that your waiting belly would rumble

words of encouragement, that you would recognize the miraculous journey

of transformation that we, like the grain, are all embarked upon.


THE END


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