S3 E19 Redbeard Bakery with John Reid

John Reid has been a sourdough baker for 30 years and in that time his passion for the craft has not diminished, but rather has only increased.

A leader in the industry, strong advocate for local food systems and supporting local farmers, he is an example of true sustainable business practice at his bakery, Redbeard.

Listen in as he and his family talk about the reasons they bought a bakery in a small town, off the beaten track. Then some of his bakers chat with me about what it has been like working there and what they have learned from him. And finally John and I talk about his latest endeavor, a collaborative attempt to grow and use indigenous grains in bread making.

Stay tuned for our next episode about the GrAiNZ movement, a loose collective of growers, millers and bakers who want to turn the industrial farming and bread making industry up side down.

Update: John passed away in 2021 – just months after recording this interview. He was surrounded by family through his final illness and his family were surrounded by a loving community as well. He is deeply missed by many. It was a great honour to be able to capture these moments with him to share with you.

This episode was created in 2021 as part of a series called Saltgrass: Turning the Goldfields Green, which was created with support from MAINfm and the Community Broadcasting Foundation.

A quick note about the transcripts: 

Some sounds in the podcast may not translate easily to the written word, we describe these when possible. We have also chosen readability over strict fidelity to the actual words spoken. As such, we have not transcribed every word and have sometimes altered the text to keep the meaning true, but also be as readable as possible.


Sounds of people working and talking can be heard as background to the speakers.

John Reid: It’s fantastic. Look at the burst on that. That’s insane.

John: Yeah. Yeah. They’re bloody incredible. Have you taken photos?

Thais: Oh, they’ve popped up.

John: It popped! These are great Lese.

Sounds from the bakery, pans scraping on a bench and paper crinkling.

Background sounds change to a crowded cafe, many voices in the background.

Cesare Salemi: This whole evolution of what bread was to what bread’s become, and the industrialisation of it, I got to witness and I got to work with bakers who thought there was nothing wrong with the bread, and they were just doing their nobility of bread work with rubbish flour, rubbish ingredients, rubbish processes, right?

So, we didn’t know. And it was only when I started to get a bit more mature—I’m the youngest in the family—that I started to understand the consequences of what’s in the flour, so for example, the chemicals that are in conventional flour that are proven to cause cancer and everyone’s happy with that. I don’t understand how everyone’s happy with that! It’s not something that’s right. I do talks at schools and ask the kids “do you mind that there’s one gram of cancer in your bread? Would you pay more?” They all put their hand up, I’ve never had a kid say no. So, once we started to understand these dynamics, you know, you look for craftsmen that have a different ethos, you look for a higher way.

So, I was taught the processes by my father and my family, so I had all that integrity and I had all that, you know, passion. But then who was going to do a bread with a different complex matrix that’s going to have sustainability of the earth and going to have sustainability and digestibility and all these things. Then you find the specialness of RedBeard baking; you find the uniqueness and the importance of John Reid. This is Eden, before she got polluted. This is Eden. And what it is, is an aspiration; it’s an inspiration for all bakers; it’s a place of home; it’s an oasis where you can come and see it being modelled, a truly sustainable farm to oven bakery that then services its community.

Cafe noises end.

Allie: Welcome to Saltgrass, a show about how local communities can engage in the climate crisis at a grassroots level. What you just heard were initially the sounds of baking at RedBeard Bakery, a woodfired sourdough bakery in Trentham. Trentham is a gorgeous small town between Woodend and Daylesford. It’s about 40 minutes-drive through very beautiful countryside from Castlemaine and just over an hour north of Melbourne.

You also heard the voice of Cesare Salemi, a baker and bakery owner, who is also a consultant for bakeries. In his line of work, he’s seen over 1000 bakeries all around the world, so when he speaks about RedBeard Bakery and John Reid, in such glowing terms, it should not be taken lightly. I personally know RedBeard Bakery and John and his family because they live in Castlemaine.

RedBeard was one of my first employers in the region when I moved out here about 11 years ago. Every second Saturday for a year, I would get up, often before it was light to go to John’s place, pick up tables, tents, and boxes of gear, and then onto Wesley Hill Market, an outdoor market with all sorts of stalls, brick-a-brack, second-hand records, clothes, plants, fresh veg, coffee, food, and fresh bread.

I would set up in the same spot each time and wait for the bread to arrive from Trentham. Customers came early, eager for the bread and anxious not to miss out. I often had to tell them to wait as the bread had not yet arrived. And once it did arrive, I would stand there selling it and giving out free samples with local, very delicious olive oil to dip it in as a taste test.

Kids would run past and repeatedly take a piece of the sample bread or a nice bun until sometimes I had to tell them that they had to stop so that there was enough for other people. Each type of loaf had a name in theme with the RedBeard: Blonde, Redhead, Flaxen and Stubble, and of course the Nice buns, which was a joke on high repeat with customers. Working at the market store for year, I developed a love of sourdough bread, which has not abated.

Sliced white death, John and others call store-bought sliced bread, and once I was converted, it is true that regular bread seemed like fairy floss or dust lacking in substance, flavour and nutrition. At the end of a shift, I would load the car, this time with all the empty bread trays as well as the rest of the market gear and take it back to John’s house. If it was hot, he would invite me to have a swim in his pool.

I knew him and his wife Thais as warm, friendly, and generous people. They were really delightful to work for. What I didn’t really realise at the time was that John was not only making delicious sourdough bread, but also working really hard and with a great deal of tenacity to make his bakery and his bread as sustainable as possible for both community and planet.

Now, John has been on my list of people to talk to since I started the show, but recent developments really pushed interviewing him to the front of the list. He has just had brain surgery to remove a tumour. He’ll happily show you the scar, which runs from the top of his head to his neck, and I needed to catch him for these interviews before he started radiation and chemo treatments during which he would be exhausted. So, I only had a week and a half really to catch him. And to be honest, I was tentative to ask, as it is a very tender and private time for many people when they’re facing a life-threatening health crisis. Even so, he was willing, warm and inviting, keen to talk about his life’s work and his passion; to share what he knows about bread-making, supporting local food and farmers, and why that is so important for sustainability, as we head into the impending climate crisis of a warming globe.

So, before we hear the promised episodes from Mildura or from the artists who ran Hear Here at the State Festival, I have two episodes for you. The first one is this one about John and his family, as well as some of the people who work at the bakery with him. And the next episode will feature interviews from a collection of Bakers and Millers about a movement called grAiNZ, with a z, of which John Reid is a central and much loved and respected figure. These people all came to Trentham recently to visit John and wish him well. This is where I recorded Caesar, who you heard earlier.

Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge that Saltgrass is produced on Djaara country, home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people. Trentham, where these interviews were recorded is also on Djaara country. We pay respects to elders. past, present and emerging; sovereignty was never ceded. As you will hear later in this episode, Aboriginal people across Australia used grains to make bread and may be considered some of the first bakers in the world. John has been working with Bruce Pascoe to try and work out how native grains could be used in bread making today, but more on that later.

Saltgrass theme plays: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app.

So, we’re going to start with John and his wife, Thais and their three sons: Will, Ben and Jim, talking about what led the family into baking and how that has been for them as a family. They had all gone to the bakery that morning to help out with the hot cross bun and bread baking. We conducted the interview in the courtyard at the back of the bakery, so you may hear some sounds of doors opening and closing and people moving past us as we speak.

So, I just thought while we are here at the bakery, we could talk about the early years. How did you find this place and why did you buy it?

John Reid: Jeepers! So yes, casting back 16 years ago, we were on a drive into the country and we were going to Lerderderg Gorge, that was our destination and we were with the boys and their cousins, so a big family group all going for a picnic. And on the way we stopped by Trentham, because, I don’t know why?…

Thais: One of the kids needed to have a wee, so, we stopped at the Cosmo 

John: As fate would have it. Laughs.

Thais: We can’t just use their toilet. We have to, you know, buy something, so I think we sat down in the garden and had maybe a snack or something. And then John went for a wander and came back and said, “hey” you know, he knew there was an oven here because he pretty much knew most of the ovens in Victoria.

Will: And I reckon you could locate every scotch oven that’s still around, I think in Victoria.

John:  Got a fair idea of quite a few. So, with this particular old Trentham oven, I knew from coming here and having a look that it was one of the many ovens that had been destroyed in the 1950s and sixties when all the ovens were sort of pulled down and knocked down by the big commercial baking interests.

The last time I saw it before we came back, it was, yeah, the fascia of the oven had all been ripped out, so all the beautiful cast iron work had all been just rudely, just ripped apart. So, I thought, there we go, there’s another beautiful old oven that’s been destroyed. And so, I just thought nothing more of it until we wandered down the laneway on that day when we came for the picnic.

Thais: And that was in 1995. And you came back and you said “hey, you know that old oven down there? Well, it’s up for lease.”

John:  And someone’s restored it. Yeah. Laughs.

Thais: And so that’s when we started renting this building. 

Allie: Tell me the history of scotch ovens in Australia, ‘cause they are quite few and far between, aren’t they?

John: They are really special and really ordinary at the same time because they were basically, every single loaf of bread that came out of any bakery in Australia from colonisation right through to the 1930s, every single loaf of bread basically came out of one of these beautiful old brick woodfired ovens. So, they’re incredibly ordinary, and I guess that’s why they all got pulled down as well, because they were so ordinary, people didn’t value them.

And when the big commercial interests came knocking at the door and thinking about ways that they could actually disrupt the beautiful, old system that we’d had of small village bakeries with their own oven and their own communities around them. Their evil plan was, they succeeded with, was to buy every single one of those ovens up at above market value and close them down and bulldoze them basically. Yeah. And these are ovens that will last hundreds of years. So, this beautiful oven here at Trentham is over 120 years old and is still going strong and showing no sign of giving up anytime soon. So, they were made to last and they were made to serve their individual small communities.

Allie: Do you know how many are left in Australia?

John: I don’t exactly. There’s some that are in bad repair that may be not salvageable, but the ones that are actually restored and operational, probably you could count on, I don’t know, two hands. Yeah, yeah.

Allie: Wow. And so, you guys all moved here and actually lived on site for the first few years. How old were you?

Will: I think I was nine, in grade three. Yeah.

Ben: So, I would’ve been seven, yeah.

Jim: Yeah. And I would’ve been four, three, I think. Yeah.

Will: One, probably one of my fondest memories was Tuesday night. Mum used to go to Melbourne for dance and we used to get fish and chips with dad. So that was a highlight.

General laughter.

Thais: I was still teaching in Melbourne a couple of days a week, so I’d stay down there with friends, and so the boys had boy’s night, couple of boys nights.

General laughter.

Ben: Yeah. Yeah. Which was pretty fun. Yeah. We used to wake up in the morning and get ready up here in front of the warm oven in winter because it was just so chilly down in that house.

Will: It’s Trentham in winter as well as like, Yeah,

Ben: There used to be snow some days and like ice all over the footpaths and roads and so it’s very chilly and there’s, you know, no really heating or insulation in that tiny little hut and so it was like, we used to come up and stand by the fire to get warm and have breakfast up here and just like the bread would be coming out, so we’d have hot bread. Yeah. Not even toasted. Just have fresh bread.

Jim: Yeah, it was really crazy. 

Thais: You’d take your school clothes with you and you’d run up in your jarmies and get dressed in front of the oven. Laughs.

Ben: Yes. What a nice time.

Thais: And Jim used to—because he was at kinder (kindergarten)—so he had a bit longer. And do you remember, you used to stand on a little stool, we’d give you a little bit of dough and you’d make a big mess. Laughs.

Allie: So, you’ve all come here today to do a little bit of baking and help with today’s round of bread. How long has it been since you’ve done any of that? 

Ben: Since we are here, yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve done bread making here. We do a little bit at home and I’ve done a little bit by myself, but since we’ve made bread with dad here, it’s probably been 10 years, I think, for me, almost maybe since we lived here. Yeah.

Will: I used to come down when I was 15 and work with my Auntie Jude, so dad’s sister. And also, you used to come down for a few shifts I remember as well. And we used to do shaping on Saturday afternoon, so I used to do that, but that was, yeah, that was eight years ago as well. So, I haven’t really done any baking since then.

Ben: I feel like making, like, the hot buns is such a nice kind of motion that you can do with both hands. Very circularly.

John: How nice was that this morning? The boys and Thais murmur in agreement. It was so nice to have us all around the table shaping together. Hot cross buns… the smell and stickiness. They’re so sticky. 

Jim: Yes. Yeah, juicy. They’re so nice. 

Thais: Do you remember when John and Jude created the Nice bun recipe Because you were in grade one then, and I think you did it for your…

Ben: I had that school project where I had to like, write the history of an invention that someone had come up with, so I did the Nice bun and I think its…

John: Oh really? Important invention…General laughter.

Ben: Important invention. Exactly, exactly. Integral to the foundations of our, . society. Um, I think I remember putting on there that my buns were the inspiration for the Nice buns, and I have stood by that for 18 years. That’s been my claim to fame. It’s been inspiration with a Nice bun. 

General laughter.

Allie: Well, I’ve always loved the Nice buns because I love hot cross buns, and they’re only available part of the year. Yeah. But the Nice buns are available all year. I love that.

Thais: And when you used to do the bread stalls and sell the bread at the markets, did you have customers complaining when the hot cross buns were on ‘cause they couldn’t get the Nice buns? 

John: Yeah. It was like a month for Easter buns where you couldn’t get Nice buns. And there were the Nice bun addicts… 

Thais: Yeah, getting a bit cranky. Just have to say there’s not enough room in the oven to bake all of them. Yeah. And they said, well, I’d rather have a Nice bun than a hot cross bun. 


Allie: So, you moved up to Castlemaine as a family and then John, I guess you were commuting and Thais, you also worked here a lot and you did lots of market stalls with the bread for a long time…

Thais: And the boys all worked front of house and on markets.

Will: Yeah, yeah. More recently than the baking, like we’ve all like been working in the cafe for oh, I mean I think I might have done a year or two, but you guys have actually done more than me, I think.

Ben: Yeah, like five years I think I worked here for, which was like a while. This was my first hospitality job, which is very nice, but I think it just worked for us to do front of house because Dad has always sort of said that we’re able to dabble in a little bit of baking, but we can’t make it our career until we turn 30. We have to try something else before we go to baking.

And so, I think that was like partially why we were always there, like we were definitely always up for every now and again to come in, but no solid shifts as bakers just because we were trying other things as well.  Which I think is a great, such a nice thing to do to your kids rather than forcing them into doing the family business. You say, actually no, you’re not allowed to do the family business, you know, you can do it if it’s really something you’re passionate about and something you really want do when you turn 30, but not until then.

John:  Yeah, you look at so many families who have a family business and it’s like there’s an expectation, even though it may not be spoken, it is, you know, it can be really joyful being in the family business, and it can be for you, but it’s also, I think it’s really nice to give kids the freedom to really dream beyond, you know, whatever their parents are passionate about. So, for me, yeah, totally, I want them to be all bakers. But you know, I’ve sat on my hands and said, no, you’ve actually got to get out into the world and give it a red-hot go. And then if you’re still keen, come back.

Allie: Do any of you think you might want to become a baker?

Sons talking together: Oh, well, wouldn’t say it. Could be? Probably not. I don’t know?

Will: We’ve seen like how hard work it is, I guess getting up at you know, all hours of the morning and driving and down from Castlemaine to here and yeah, it’s a very big job I feel like.

John: At the moment we are talking a lot about it, aren’t we? About what you guys are going to do in the future. Talking about what jobs work and what jobs don’t work for, you know, family or relationships or, you know.  Yeah, it’s been a big family topic actually lately.

Thais: And health and wellbeing and survival.

John: So many things go into actually having a decent career. And, you know, people shift and change a hell of a lot nowadays. It’s not as though you…I didn’t find baking till I was 30. You know, that took me that long of trying to hold other jobs that I thought were okay, but never felt right and baking just felt so right when I got there.

Allie: So, tell me the story of how you found baking. 

John: I had a career crisis, sort of, I’ve been working in publishing and had got a job in Hong Kong, working as a publisher for a big publishing house, and Thais and I were going to move to Hong Kong together to live there for—it’d have to be three or four years to make the move from Victoria worthwhile—and we just started pulling at that string, you know, but hang on, if we go three or four years, then, you know, when are we going to be thinking about kids?

Because we were you know, getting, not older but older than some of our friends. So that little string started to get tugged at. And by the time, you know, I think within the time of actually going from accepting the job offer and then starting to pack our stuff and get our airline tickets. Within a week or two, the entire fabric unravelled in front of us. And basically, I realised that there’s no way I could work in publishing because it was a 50 to 60-hour week and that was the expectation. And that I was going to be a shit dad if I did that. And it just, everything fell apart, there was nothing left to hold onto. So, I ended up working then for 12 months in a florist, you know, giving up publishing all together and having a total career breakdown and realising that I needed to find something that worked with having a family and not being a total disaster as a dad. So, that was a major crisis at the age of 30 or whatever.

Allie: And can you tell me honestly though, that you don’t spend at least 50 or 60 hours a week baking, working in the business? 

Thais and Allie laugh.

John: That is absolutely true, but the fabric of our lives has been one where, you know, as a small business, we’ve been very intimately part of each other’s lives. Whereas if I’d gone off to a publishing house, you know, 50, 60 hours a week, I just wouldn’t have seen the kids at all. 

Allie: And Thais, how about you? How did you fall in with all of this and find your way amongst all of this?

Thais: I taught at Ceres (environmental education centre, urban farm, community garden and more, located in Brunswick, Melbourne) for 10 years. Helped establish the environmental education programs there at Bottomley way back in the nineties.

And it was always a dream of ours to move to the country. And John was baking at home and I’d always baked bread myself as well as a kid and a teenager because my gran had always baked bread, but I was only using yeast then, I didn’t even really know about sourdough, so John was doing sourdough at home. We always had this little dream, “oh, let’s move to the country and have a bakery in the country.” 

At Ceres, you know, both of us were very involved with all that sustainability and cultural richness and social equality and so all those fundamental values you know, were part of our lives. John and I actually met teaching as science teachers and at the Gould League many years ago. And so all that was just a natural progression really to when we moved up here and the bakery became an extension of what we really want for the future of the planet.

So, you know, redesigning our food systems and growing vegetables—which you know, are in the paddock just over there now—that’s been a long-time dream; it’s taken 15 years for us to get the veggie garden going to use in the kitchen. And you know, all John’s work with all the farmers over many, many years establishing those links with all the local beautiful producers who grow vegetables and wheat and grains in a really sustainable way that really replenishes the soil rather than depleting the soil and doing it in terms of local climate and very low transport, zero refrigeration, and we’re just reducing that whole impact on the planet.

And so, I guess, yeah, in terms of the actual hands-on baking, I’ve always baked at home on my own. I plop the bread into the tins: I’m a very speedy sourdough baker, but it’s so forgiving so I got away with it when the kids were very little. 

John: You made beautiful bread. You always have.

Thais: Yeah. I love it. I do love making it.

John: Your bread’s super special because it’s, you know, it’s out there with heap of grain in it and you know, actual seeds and lots of texture. It’s beautiful, beautiful bread.

Thais: Yeah, I do, its fun.  I do love making bread at home, and it fits into the overall philosophy, I guess, of what our life has always been about and what we wanted, the sort of world that we wanted to bring our children into and leave behind us for our great grandchildren. So, you know, we’re so proud of how RedBeard has evolved, and we’re so fortunate that so many people have joined us in the journey along the way.

In terms of the hands-on, look I just pop in and out and try and help with overseeing things and I’ve done a lot of markets in the past. I remember when we lived here, the boys, they’d have a bath at night and instead of their jarmies, I’d put them dressed in their clothes to bed, and then in the dark, John would be baking, I’d get them out of bed, pick them up, put them into their car seats and they’d be already dressed and they’d go back to sleep.

Then John and I’d load the car up with all the bread and the gear for the market. And then we’d drive off to the market in the dark and then get there at dawn and I’d be setting up and gradually the boys would wake up and they’d be in their clothes and we’d all run the market together, you know. And they were allowed $2 to go off and spend at the market. And if I needed to go to the toilet, you know, they’d all be in charge of the store, but I’d have to quickly run away. Laughter.

So yeah, there’s some very fond memories of the beginning and I think the initial cafe was set up… ‘cause I was still teaching in Melbourne and so I used to go to the hard rubbish collections in the fancy suburbs around Melbourne after I taught on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. And I’d pick up, you know, laxminex tables and vinyl chairs and, you know, load up the back of the station wagon, drive up here, and that’s the way we set up our cafe. In the beginning it was from hard rubbish.

Allie: Yeah. So, it sounds like the sort of environmental principles and the health and wellbeing of the earth and the community are really fundamental and have been right from the start. 

John: I guess, yeah, you’re right. It’s integral and fundamental to the way the business has evolved.

I guess the focus has always been about building communities, so that’s been the overarching thing that has kept us hooked into our beautiful community around Trentham and Castlemaine; has been just that idea of, yes, we’re a bakery, yes, we’re a business within this community, but the thing that really not just drives us, but is absolutely fundamental to who we are and how we are in the world, has been the idea of building something better in the world. You know, moving with all of our other beautiful community members, who are involved in so many fabulous ways of community building, to tie into that and just build a better future for us and our kids and the planet. And that has been, yeah, absolutely integral to every decision we’ve made.

So, when the temptation has been there to franchise or do a second bakery—because that’s what the accountants are always pushing me to do—I always said, no, what I want to build is actually a model for other bakeries that can work totally within their community, so part of their community, totally supported by their communities and not trying to do more than that. Be happy with that as the most fundamental unit and way of actually not just doing business, but actually doing community.

I’ve seen it as a really important role of ours to actually help evolve supply chains. I think one thing that didn’t really exist in a way that was going to work for our bakery in the early days is just where to get decent grain and flour and how to support farmers to actually dream about how they might supply a bakery like ours when they were ready. So, it was a lot of cart before the horse, you know, we actually set it up and said, okay, now we actually need farmers to actually make this happen, you know?

So, initially we got flour and grain from wherever we could, but at every opportunity we went and fundamentally, in every way supported financially, in every sense supported young farmers and old farmers and you know, people who wanted to give it a red-hot go. We just said, “yeah, we will buy your grain. We will buy your flour.” You know, this is what we want to do; we are going to give up on the bigger suppliers we’ve been using as soon as we can, we were going to buy from you and support you and stick with you.

So that has been really important for the way we’ve been supported. I mean, you get what you give, I guess in that sense. So, we’ve been so fortunate that people have been prepared to take the risk of supporting us and that’s, you know, that’s how it works, I guess.

Thais: And where we could, we guaranteed crop so we would pay ahead.  Yeah. Before the season, you know, to help share the load with the farmer. If it had been a bad season and their crop didn’t work, then rather them taking all the loss, we’d share the loss with them.

John: We’ve tried lots of different models in that respect, so lots of ways of actually helping, you know, farmers get going.

Allie: And how did you get your sourdough starter culture and how did you learn to bake in this way? Like was it a steep learning curve, you bought the bakery and then figured it out, or what happened?

John: No, I started baking, you know, well before we got the bakery going. I think it was that earliest experience at Natural Tucker in Nicholson Street in North Carlton, just with a mob of other bakers in one of Australia’s earliest sort of reinventions of sourdough baking. Because sourdough baking—you know, we shouldn’t even call it sourdough baking—it’s baking the way baking used to be and it’s just doing bread, all bread with sourdough you know, 80 years ago.

So yes, I was really lucky to just fall into… a friend invited me to come along to just shape some bread. It happened to be Natural Tucker Bakery that was my first experience. And so yeah, that was just super good luck and as soon as I was in there and amongst a crowd of bakers, it was just love at first sight for all of us, there was no turning back. It was such a beautiful craft. For me, just ticked every single box. So, you use your body in a really big way, so, you know, really use your body hard and use your brain as well, and you had to think through stuff, so it was just a combination of everything that the whole craft of baking just absolutely hooked me straight away.

Allie: And have you seen your fellow bakers from that same time period go on and, and do amazing things as well? 

John: Sure. Yeah. Sourdough captured the public imagination in recent years, but for the last 30 years I’ve been involved, it’s just been a steady increase, it hasn’t been, hasn’t felt like a fad and I’m really hoping that it doesn’t, you know, turn into a fad. I just don’t think it can because it’s just fundamentally a different way of approaching the world. And so, at its heart, it’s the most beautiful like with all really good crafts. The further you dig into it, the more you realise there is to do, and it’s like this amazing landscape just evolves in front of you. That further you work into that landscape, the bigger it becomes and the more fascinating it becomes, the more sucked in you get. It’s one of the really beautiful crafts that humans have done forever.

Short musical break: bird calls and guitar

Allie: That was John Reid with his wife Thais, and their three boys, Will, Ben and Jim. While at the bakery that morning, I took the opportunity to talk to some of John’s bakers and ask them what it meant to them to work at RedBeard and learn from John.

Shorty was filling in. He’d come back to help at the bakery while John was ill, as several former RedBeard bakers had been doing since John’s diagnosis. Lese and Dave are both current bakers at RedBeard and both when I spoke to them, had just come off very long shifts, which had started around 11:00 PM the night before, so forgive them if they sound tired.

Allie: So, you are called Shorty? Laughs. How long have you known John and Thais and been involved with this bakery?

Shorty: Yep. Probably five or six years. Turned up here one day, and John on Friday afternoon has an open kitchen where he invites everyone to come in and see if they like doing it. And I just never went away basically until they offered me a job. But before this, I was a baker in a commercial bakery. I figured there was more to baking than just what commercial bakers were doing and fell in love with the place.

Allie: So, what’s your experience been of working with sourdough as opposed to baker’s yeast.

Shorty: Oh, I love it, yeah. You’ve got to treat it right. It’s a bit trickier. But yeah, it’s just the best. Yeah. Commercial yeast is quite volatile, but it’s pretty hard to mess up commercial yeast. Yeah. Whereas this is, you know, it’s an art. Yeah. Always has been. 

Allie: It feels old world, in here.

Shorty: If you had come in a hundred years ago, nothing would be different. Maybe the mixer, you know, but everything else is the same. Process is the same, the doughs are the same, and, in a hundred years-time, the same thing will still be good.

Allie: What are these cloths hanging from the ceiling?

Shorty: They are linens, yeah. So, we use them on the viennas where we don’t put them in tins; linen won’t pick up any lint or leave any lint behind in the dough. So that’s why we use the linens. And as you can see, they are stained a little bit from years of wear and tear. That adds to the flavour. It’s like an old teapot; you never wash a teapot and it builds its own character, same with the linens.

Background scraping and other noises as the interview continues.

Allie: So big in there! When you talk about throwing the wicked witch into the oven, you’re like, there’s plenty of room for her in an oven like this!

Shorty: Yeah. I like to say you got the whole classroom of children in there.

Allie: Laughs.

Shorty: Because our oven’s four meters by four meters, it’s a bit hard to get stuff in and out. So, we use these big long sticks to push the bread in and out. 

Allie: They almost look like oars on a boat or something.

Shorty: They do don’t they? Again, age old, they have been around since Noah was a lad.

Allie: Yeah. And I notice some old, very, very worn-out ones are now pride of place hanging on the wall in the cafe.

Shorty: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

Lise: So, Lise, how long have you been here?

Lise: Well, I started working here as a chef, because I’m a chef, and that was over six years ago. And there was a baker here called Max. Max, the French baker. He was leaving and so they were looking for other bakers and thinking of training people and I just said, “well how about training me?”

So, then I just started learning how to bake, but I totally fell in love with it, the whole process, and it’s just such an interesting thing compared to cooking. It’s very different to cooking, like I didn’t think it would be so different, but the whole process is so many different variables that you have to take into account and every bake is different.

There’s just so much to learn. I’ve only been baking for just over a year, but I really just feel like I only just started in a way. Yeah. 

Allie: So, the fact that every bake is different, is that because you are using live cultures and things just change and it’s maybe why they call it an art rather than a science?

Lise: Yeah, absolutely. Well, that’s one of the things, you’re using live cultures, but it’s also got a lot to do with temperature. Temperature of the room, temperature of the flour, temperature of the water, all these different things. And then the flour, so flour can vary from season to season. So, you can, you know, be baking one day with one flour and then the next week you get new flour and it is totally different. You might have to change the recipe a little bit.

So, it’s really fluid and you’re always tweaking things and getting used to things and it’s really interesting like that, like it’s so many variables and different things you have to take into account. It’s not like just sticking to a recipe and doing the same thing every week. You might accidentally, like this morning I made the hot cross bun dough a bit hot. It ended up being like 31 degrees after I’d made it, which is really a bit hot for dough, so what I did then was I split it into two tubs and put it under the table. So, it meant that slowed down the bulk proofing before I then had to remix it. So little things like that, you sort of learn how to control it a bit.

Allie: And you’ve been learning from John? 

Lise: I was learning from John from day one, which has been amazing because his knowledge is just… he’s got such depth of knowledge and he’s really handy to have around so you can just ask him, “what do you think?” You know, “can you feel this dough and what do you think about this?” And “should I put this in the oven now?” And so all those kind of things. I just feel like, so grateful that I was able to learn from him, because you know, he’s a real master of the trade.

When I first started learning, I was quite…I was kind of scared. I was a little bit nervous because we’d just been through the grAiNZ conference here and John was quite stressed out and I’d seen him get a bit angry and stuff. And you know, after working here for five years, I’ve seen him get a bit cross and stressed. I was thinking, “oh God, I’m, you know, a bit nervous about how to bake with John ‘cause he might get cross and stuff”, but not once did he ever get cross with me. And I made so many mistakes and so many stuff ups and not once! like ever has he ever been cross with me baking. Like he’s just been the most lovely teacher and always says, you know, how wonderful the bread is, even if it’s not, and you know, so encouraging and so enthusiastic, yeah, he’s just been really the best teacher; the best teacher for me. Yeah.

My time here has just been amazing. I’ve loved this place working here and kind of feels like home here. Yeah. And just really lovely people to work for. John and Thais, really, really great. 

Dave: So, it’s interesting. When I first left secondary school, one of the earliest jobs I had was working at a Brumbys (Brumby’s Bakeries) down in Acland Street in Saint Kilda. I wasn’t making bread then, but behind the counter, and I really enjoyed the early starts, but I then went “okay, I’ve had a couple of years doing counter work, I’ll go and get educated.” So, I went and did the whole teaching thing and then after teaching, tried other things, eventually moving to Woodend and my sister said “oh, I got a friend and he is starting up a bakery.”

I started delivering bread for John and Al and spent two and a half or three years doing that as well as the occasional market. And then for a number of reasons, I stopped driving and took a break; did a few other odd jobs and ended up with a shift or two a week at Sprout (a sourdough bakery) in Castlemaine. And again, that was a shaping shift and I really enjoyed that. And then when a full-time baking position came available here, I went, well, I like working for John and Al so I’ll go back, and they had me. Silly buggers!

Allie: Laughs.

Dave:  So that was 11 years ago. John and Al put me through my apprenticeship here, which was really nice. They said, “oh, you don’t have to do an apprenticeship.” I said, “oh, I want to find out what everybody else is doing.” And John said, “yeah, that’s fair enough.” And it was interesting to compare the apprenticeship system and what most bakeries are doing with what is done here, which is a lot more special. 

Quality of the ingredients. In mass production, or particularly at William Angliss (William Angliss Institute of TAFE), it’s a teaching school and they can’t necessarily afford to buy the nicer ingredients. So, you’re left with what the large flour industries are happy to give you a deal on, which basically turns into advertising for them. You’ll rarely hear about the smaller millers or the smaller producers going through a standard apprenticeship, but working here I have access to the source.

Allie: Tell me what sort of things you’ve learned from working with John. 

Dave: To enjoy the community that you build as a result of being a producer of quality food. I met Frank and Penny Porter for the first time two weeks ago. We get all our dried fruit here at the bakery from them: apricots, sultanas, currents, and the occasional fresh fruit too. Now it is the season for plums, so I don’t know who’s going to process them, but there are six boxes of plums waiting in the fridge. And John and Al cultured that friendship ‘slash’ working relationship for many, many years with those farmers. And in their own words, they’re a small farm doing things mostly by hand at a scale they can manage. And so, they don’t need to bring in the bees at certain times of year because they’re small enough to rely on the local bee population and they don’t endlessly bombard their crops with insecticides or weedicides around the base of the trees.

And Penny was saying, on their way down, they were driving past the larger farms, the larger orchards. Almonds are in vogue because everybody wants almond milk at the moment and the almond crops are a monoculture. There are trees and trees and trees and no grass underneath, and they have to bring in boxes of bees at the right time of year and I can’t imagine that that’s particularly sustainable or an enjoyable environment to work in. Whereas a family farm, you speak with the bosses rather than the foreman or the manager, and you can see the impact that their industry and their hard work has on their own lives. You go, “oh, that’s right. That’s why we are doing it for our own mental health, our own wellbeing.” And so, a sustainable business has to address that mental wellbeing.

Short musical break: bird calls and guitar

Allie: That was Shorty, Dave and Lise who have all been working at RedBeard recently. Lise mentioned the grAiNZ Conference, which was hosted by RedBeard in 2019. We will have many perspectives on the grAiNZ movement for you next week, including John’s involvement. But today we’re going to hear from John as he talks about what came out of the 2019 grAiNZ Conference for him personally, and that is that he started working with Bruce Pascoe to grow and test indigenous grasses and grains for the purposes of making bread.

For those who may not know him, Bruce Pascoe is the author of a best-selling very popular book called Dark Emu (Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident, Magabala books, 2014) which re-examines colonial accounts of Aboriginal people in Australia and cites evidence of pre-colonial agriculture, engineering and building construction by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including the Australia-wide use of grains to make bread.

This perspective is really significant in terms of Australian history because as many people have known for a long time, it makes a mockery of what Australia is actually founded on in the British legal system, which is the idea of ‘terra nullius’, which means that they claimed that no one of any advanced culture was living on the continent of Australia.

And this in turn, is how Australia was colonised without any kind of treaty or formal agreement between the people who were already here and the people who then came in vast numbers and took over. So, I asked John why he’s taken this project on, why he thinks it’s so important to work with native grains and how that fits in with the rest of his philosophy about baking and life.

John: So, I guess that interest evolves naturally from a more holistic understanding of agriculture and our impact on the planet and where we need to be trying to get to. So, if we’re going to really respect Country in a way that hasn’t been done by European people in Australia, we need to rediscover what we’ve lost in terms of our beautiful Indigenous agriculture and the way it has supported, you know, thousands of generations of people.

Yeah. So, for me that’s a really important ongoing project that is gaining understanding, and I think it’s still formative so I think we still don’t actually understand totally what we’ve lost or what we need to regain or how we’re going to actually achieve that. So, it feels like very, very early days.

And thank goodness for Bruce Pascoe actually having the character and just incredible foresight to actually put that into the conversation. I think the increasing number of us really see that re-establishment of Indigenous grains is a really crucial part of where we need to be going, but it’s a massively long-term project and it’s insanely ambitious and given how much we’ve destroyed in terms of Aboriginal Australia agriculturally and ecologically, I think it’s not only the most important project in Australian agriculture, but it’s going to be the making of us, I think, in terms of our broader cultural understanding of ourselves.

Allie: What sort of plants have you been working with, and if you’ve tried baking with them, what have been the results so far?

John: Oh, we’ve had astounding lack of success. A classic in that attempt is kangaroo grass; that’s a classic fail from us. All of us are collectively trying to rediscover Indigenous grain. We know it was used widely. Kangaroo grass is really…it’s got a very wide distribution across a lot of Australia. We know it was used because there’s so many good records to say that it was grown and used across a lot of Australia and really fundamental to a lot of nutrition in Australian people pre-colonisation. We know it was super important in terms of calories, in terms of nutrition, in terms of flavours and you know, everything.

So, we know it was there and it was really important, but it was just one of, I think there’s something like 190 species of Australian grass that were cultivated all over Australia, and there wasn’t just one type of grass in one area. There were many grasses in every area that were not only grown and cultivated, but had a whole lot of culinary associations and really interesting things going on.

So, we’ve got this massive history that has just been totally ignored and lost and trashed as we just trashed the landscape and just monoculture wheat over the entire landscape. We’ve just lost so, so much. It makes you cry every time you walk out the door in Australia because you just look at how little we’ve got left in terms of any sort of Indigenous grasslands because they’ve just been totally destroyed. But also, just how ruthlessly we’ve just ignored that beautiful cultural history, and that flavour history, and the flavour history, we’ve just totally ignored it. Haven’t given a damn, we’ve ridden roughshod over it.

Yeah, it’s appalling. You know, we’re at a point of just totally losing…well we have already lost, probably all of the knowledge for most of those grasses, 190 grasses, almost all of it in terms of propagation, cultivation, uses. 

One of the problems, for instance, with kangaroo grasses, we’ve got no idea how to actually get the awn—which is just that long spike that grows out the end of the grain—how to remove the awn from the actual grass seed itself. We’ve got no idea how to do that in a way that is actually not just grabbing every single grass seed and breaking each awn off by hand, which makes a nonsense of any sort of cultivation or sensible way of processing kangaroo grass. 

We’ve got no idea how to get the damned awn off the seed because it’s quite well held on. But, we know for a fact that a huge number of calories were produced in that way pre-colonisation, and we’ve got no idea how it was done.  We have lost it totally. We don’t have records to show us how to actually do the basic stuff, like take the spike off the end of the seed so that we can eat the seed. So, it’s so sad in many ways; it’s so sad that we’ve just ignored that beautiful cultural legacy, we’ve just trashed it and look, it’s so exciting on the other hand to be part of, you know, this embryonic re-understanding of what we’ve lost.

Trying to really engage with the small amount of knowledge we have left, of course, because most Aboriginal stuff is all passed on from, yeah, one generation to the next and without a lot being written down. So as soon as you break that beautiful cultural learning and understanding, generations of incredible inquiry into how to make the best use out of your natural resources and how to respect, you know, your natural resources. As soon as you wipe out a whole generation or two of Indigenous people just through conflict and abusive behaviour, it’s really hard to re-establish that.

You rediscover it in the bowels of the museum, in the Australian museum down in Victoria, in Melbourne, there’s a collection of bread, there is first contact bread. So, these are breads that were grabbed or exchanged or bartered or whatever by early explorers, and were actually collected as ethnographic, interesting bits of stuff and were catalogued and sent and shipped around the world as curiosities, I guess back in the day as part of science.

And in the Victorian museum, there’s something, I don’t know exactly how many, but there’s hundreds and hundreds of samples of first contact bread. So, these are breads that were traded or swapped or given away or just collected, and instead of being eaten, they were popped into a museum collection. So, we have all this amazing bread that you can go and it’s very hard to get access to because it’s really important and special. But Bruce Pascoe has been allowed access to a lot of those bread samples after many years of very carefully asking to get access to it. And he’s shown me photographs of the breads out of the collection and they are proper big, decent leavened loaves of bread, so they’re not like a flatbread, you know, or something like that that’s a bit baked on a hot rock or whatever, that’s just flat and uninteresting. These are big, well-aerated, leavened, sourdough, I guess is not a good word, but essentially these are, these are not flatbreads these are leavened loaves of bread that are full of fluffy aerated, beautiful texture, and, these breads were baked all over Australia pre-contact.

So yeah, we have a lot of these breads that we can actually refer to and look at, and we can work out, for instance, that some really particularly beautiful loaves of bread were full of Cumbungi rush, you know, was one of the main ingredients for it. And we have, you know, evidence for, yeah, those 150 other grains, native Australian grains that were stone ground and were made into leavened loaves of bread. So, Bruce Pascoe claims—and I don’t see any reason to doubt him, and there’s lots of evidence, that Australian bakers were the first sourdough bakers, so the first ones to actually make leavened bread in the world.

We certainly have evidence of bread making that goes back at least 60,000 years. There is the same grain, the same grasses that were used to make these loaves in the collection, were being ground on stones 60 -70,000 years ago, and that there’s evidence of the grain on the grinding stones and the grinding stones are there, and there’s no reason to suspect that the same techniques probably weren’t used to make the bread as it was 60 – 70,000 years ago. So, we have this incredible culture of beautiful bread that is, you know, essentially uninterrupted, you know, for that whole length of time, this beautiful bread. So that’s quite an amazing, beautiful legacy that we need to rediscover. 

Allie: Mm. Yeah, I mean, that just to me, that whole thing about Bruce Pacoe’s book is all about citing evidence to say that Indigenous people used agriculture and consciously cultivated certain plants to do certain things with, rather than it being wilderness, where people just wandered around and just chanced upon a kangaroo and happened to, you know, like there was a lot more consideration about how they controlled the environment.

And so that’s his book, Dark Emu. But yeah, all of that stuff really just reinforces this idea that there was so much more evidence of culture that was clearly ignored by white people when they came here. Like leavened bread indicates a level of, I don’t know, culture and capacity to do sophisticated things, to my mind, and it just said to me again, it just sort of indicates how wilful the white interpretation of Indigenous culture was to diminish and dismiss their achievements. 

John: Yeah. I don’t know what I say to that! Exactly, Allie! That’s exactly how I feel about it. It’s just unbelievably, ignorantly stupid, pig-ignorantly stupid of the white people who came, and just didn’t have any appreciation of what they were… bumbling a lot of the time. I think it’s just, you know, dumb humans doing their thing and just riding roughshod over other cultures, you know, just pathetic.

I just want to maybe just retouch again on, you know, one of your favourite topics on all this, and that is just that I think this whole beautiful revival of amazing bread in Australia around the world is happening at a very grassroots level.  It’s happening in a way that doesn’t, you know, involve corporations. That involves a whole of people interacting with each other very locally and building food systems that are resilient and really strong and not going to be bought out and sold by the powers that have #!@cked up our food system to this point.

So, I think that incredible resilience that is so evident in sourdough baking and everything around it and the food systems here that’s around it, is evidence that we are much bigger and far better than what the corporations have tried to do to us, and that we are resilient and we are strong, and we will, you know, look after each other and look after country in a way that is imaginative and respectful and clever. Not like the current stupid food system. Yeah.

Anyway, we had the chance to not keep on doing it. And we’ve got a chance to make beautiful, strong food systems, and that’s why we love the work you are doing with your podcast and the work that all of us are doing to reinvent and reimagine strong local, sustainable food systems.

Short musical break: bird calls and guitar

Allie: That was John Reid of RedBeard Bakery in Trentham. My name is Alison Hanly. Stay tuned for the next episode all about the grAiNZ movement, a loose collection of people who all care deeply about creating localised, robust food systems so that we all may thrive in an uncertain future. Links to the various things discussed today can be found in the episode description  at saltgrasspodcast.com.

You can follow us on Facebook and Instagram, and this program was made possible with the support from the Community Broadcasting Foundation. Find out more at cbf.org au. Thanks for listening.

Saltgrass theme plays: Salt of the earth people, grass roots change. Listen to all episodes of Saltgrass on your podcast app.

Transcription by Robyn Walton

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