One of my first food columns for this newspaper was about bread. Written eight years ago, it expressed the disappointment familiar to so many people who make the move from city to country, or who had travelled the world and tasted French breads and Italian breads. Eight years ago there really was very little of what I can only term real bread; eight years on the situation is definitely brighter. Rachel and Simon at Heartbreads really do pour their hearts into their ever-improving breads you can buy at the markets; the Jordon brothers are a community asset; from the vintage wood-fired oven at Newrybar’s Harvest Café expert bakers extract seriously good loaves.
And there is also Andrew Wightman. Andrew’s enormous beard is the first thing I notice when, at the ungodly hour of 6 am, we meet at his ‘office’. The office is the Top Shop in Byron Bay, arguably one of the hottest, sceney-est operations in the shire. Even in winter you will see customers sprawled out on the grass before and beside it as you drive past, groups of mostly young improbably good-looking people. If you choose to enter the actual café – not even necessary if all you want is a drive-by coffee due to the large welcoming window open to the street through which good-humoured baristas hand you your biocup of impeccably made brew – you will see more groups at the communal table out the back or inevitably queueing patiently in front of the counter and the glass cabinets packed full of gorgeous pastries and cakes and pies.
I am meeting Andrew at the end of his shift; after our chat he will head back home to Federal for his ‘night’s’ sleep. He has been baking bread and pastries for much of the past twelve hours, but is abundantly alert and abundantly cheerful.
Andrew is completely self-taught. A Michel Roux book given to him had sparked his interest in baking; up until about 18 months ago bread-making and pastry- baking had just been a hobby. He moved to Byron Bay from Melbourne nearly six years ago, his background in IT, manufacturing and small businesses. Like so many others there he was drinking coffee at the Top Shop one day when he decided to leave some samples of his latest batch of baking with co-owner Andy Gordon.
Andy was impressed and the very next day Andrew started producing pastries for the café. (These run the French gamut of croissants, brioches, danishes and pain au chocolat and are – despite the fact I am here to talk about his bread, despite the fact I am more a fan of good bread than I am of pastries – quite wonderful, la vraie chose.) ’It was more the pastries at the beginning’, Andrew is saying now. ‘I saw an opportunity to fill a gap with them. A month later I started introducing the breads.’
I remember first tasting Andrew’s sourdough bread, about nine months ago when an impressed friend presented me with a loaf. I was beside myself with excitement, but it had taken me this long to meet its creator. And yet the bearded man before me seems almost unaware of his greatness, as if the happy accident of his having become one of the shire’s best bakers hasn’t properly registered, or doesn’t especially matter. He tells me that even though he is turning out around 40 – 50 loaves a day – plain and seeded and on the weekends fruit and nut or maybe sweet potato and rosemary – he hasn’t lost the enthusiasm.
‘But I want to keep it small’, he says. ‘Every pastry and every bread is an experience for someone. It’s about those little essentials of life that people like and it fits in with the notion of a corner store. We could make a lot more but we’re really focused on quality. This is a rare moment in my life when I’m doing what I love to do.’
And with that I let Andrew go home to bed, as my own day properly commences.