• A Melbourne community initiative is making good bread affordable and bringing people together at the same time. (Cassandra Hogan)Source: Cassandra Hogan
This community bakery teaches skills and shares cultures by making quality and affordable wood-fired bread.
By
Cat Woods

1 Jul 2021 - 10:41 AM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2021 - 4:38 PM

Launching in 2018, the High Rise Community Bakery first began within the public housing grounds of Atherton Gardens Estate in Fitzroy. However, the pride of its operation — the wood-fired oven — was built in 2005 by wood-fired oven pioneer Alan Scott. Scott's ovens are renowned worldwide because of their ability to bake naturally fermented bread in the same chamber as the fire. 

When Clifton Hill resident Alda Balthrop-Lewis approached Peta Christensen to propose teaching community residents how to bake their own sourdough bread, the idea of reviving the long-unused oven took seed.

Not only do High Rise Community Bakery participants learn how to make bread, it's affordable for them too.

Christensen, food systems projects and partnerships leader with the urban agriculture community group, Cultivating Community, has been initiating and managing urban agriculture projects in Melbourne since 2000, including the Community Grocer on the grounds of the estate, which sells fresh produce affordably for the local community.

Christensen says, "We knew there was something special about this process. The idea of fire, bread and community."

In 2018, Balthrop-Lewis volunteered her time to lead workshops, usually once or twice a month, but in 2020, the bakery sessions were not possible. The once-monthly sessions had gained momentum though, and bread was being sold via The Community Grocer, a weekly market providing affordable fresh food.

"We knew there was something special about this process. The idea of fire, bread and community."

"There are so many bread cultures, and the sensation of that fermented, cultured bread had such a tactile memory for people whether from African countries or European countries," says Christensen.

With a grant from Perpetual Foundation that lasts until mid-2022, Cultivating Community was able to employ Cassandra Hogan, a resident of the next-door social housing, as their community baker two days a week.

Hogan explains, "I was shopping at the Community Grocer three years ago and Peta and Alda were giving away tastings of their sourdough bread, and they haven't been able to get rid of me since." She volunteered for two years, once a month, until she was employed in February this year.

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"We started out making sourdough loaves, but [our products] evolve with the people who come into the group, shaped by what is culturally appropriate and what people want to use the oven for, because it's quite a nostalgic thing.

"Sometimes people will bring their own ingredients and show us how to make specific breads, and other times it's a combination of their own ingredients and the starter dough that we've made using communal ingredients."

The High Rise Community Bakery is cultivating bread and a community.

When members of the group suggest products, or bring ingredients, the group learn how to make particular foods: they've made a dark, seeded Danish rye with the expertise of a Swedish member of the group. For Ramadan, they made Turkish bread. "What draws people in is the oven," says Hogan.

"One of our members came in and told us that in her village in Turkey she would have used ovens like this, but on a much grander scale. It's beautiful because there's such a sense of longing when she told us about the oven, and her village, the breads she'd make and how she'd eat it with friends over tea. As much as it's about the bread, it's really more about the sharing."

There are so many different ways to make bread, thanks to the diverse cultures that make up this community.

Though the bread is baked and sold at the Community Market, Christensen explains, "We're certainly not making any money; funds go towards flour, wood and those sort of things."

On Monday, the dough is prepared and shaped. On Tuesday, Hogan lights the oven at 5:30am to be really hot for baking. Then, another community member comes down to help boil the bagels at 7am before 27 sourdough loaves, 100 bagels, some focaccia and mini loaves head to the market at 9am.

Thuraya Akhund migrated with her husband to Australia in 2008 from Afghanistan. She joins in the group on Mondays, and also brings her own ingredients to prepare food that reminds her of home.

BULANI: AFGHAN BREAD
Bulani

The very popular bulani are pockets of Afghan bread filled with different vegetable mixtures and fried. Tear the bulani into pieces and dip into homemade plain yoghurt before eating.

"I first used it two years ago. I brought my stuff, and they helped me to cook," Akhund explains. One of her favourites is from a recipe she prepares at home before taking it to the oven.

"We call it bulani, a type of pastry. It's sour and has lots of chilli and flavours, I grew up eating it. I bake the big bread that we ate in Afghanistan a long time ago, my mum makes it. We call it naan-e-Afghani, a big, brown bread. Over there, it's very expensive. I make it using the oven, it smells the same."

The Community Grocer Market Tuesdays 9am – 1pm on the Fitzroy Public Housing Estate (Atherton Gardens Estate).

In 2019, Cultivating Community supported the establishment of 20 public housing community gardens across Melbourne, providing over 720 public housing tenants the opportunity to grow food for their families. The community regularly runs programs on urban agriculture and the preparation of healthy food. To volunteer or attend sessions, go to the Cultivating Community website or Facebook.

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