The Bruny Baker: Finding Fresh Sourdough In A Roadside Fridge
When I asked friends for their Bruny Island recommendations, a popular suggestion was The Bruny Baker. I imagined it as a bricks and mortar store, potentially a cute cafe setting by the sea, and somewhere I would be able to find a decent coffee. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Bruny Baker is really a mix of enigma, novelty and a vintage road-side fridge. Once a day, the fridge is filled, and those passing by pull over to buy their sourdough and cookies - a mixture of travellers and locals alike. It is an honesty system. Bank details are scrawled inside the fridge door and a locked slot awaits cash payments, with each item labelled with a hand-written price on its paper packaging. Day-in and day-out the fridge is filled, and over the past three years it has cemented itself as a must-visit spot on the island. Yet outside of local circles, little is known about the baker who fills the fridge.
It’s still dark as I step outside, the moon shimmering off the water of the D’Entrecasteax strait, and bitterly cold. I’m almost at the bottom of the world down here, and the sun is still hours from rising. A dim light glows through the window of the timber-clad shed up the hill, guiding my way through the garden toward the shed’s front entrance. Knocking twice on the door, I am called inside by a man with a beaming smile, hands covered in flour, and exuding more energy than I’ll ever have at this hour of the morning. A lofty room with a wood fired oven roaring in the corner, the space features a slab of work benches in its centre and a well-used banquet table running along its side. Laid out before me are bags of ingredients and bayonets of dough, and standing behind them is John, the man who fills the fridge.
John turned the dough as we chatted, the radio playing in the background. He has been on the island for fourteen years, and has been placing bread in the fridge at the end of his Sheepwash Bay driveway for the past three years. Long before the emergence of The Bruny Baker, it was John’s father who first introduced him to bread making. Growing up, his parents would grow their own vegetables, mill their own wheat and his father regularly baked fresh wholemeal bread. John’s first introduction to wood-fire brick ovens was cooking at Russell’s, a famous wood-fired pizzeria in Adelaide. A down-to-earth bluestone cottage on the side of the street, the pizzeria had a reputation for quality and opened one night a week to a loyal crowd of locals. It inspired John to open his own cafe in the Adelaide Hills, and granted him the opportunity to cook with fire every day. This ritual continued even after John fell in love with Jenene and followed her to Bruny Island, and he proudly shares that he has been making a fire and baking sourdough bread every day for sixteen years running.
“It’s a rhythm of getting up, baking and going to the fridge. It requires maturity to do it everyday, and then I farm.”
There is no steam button. There is no temperature button. He doesn’t have a controlled room to proof in - a critical step in the preparation of bread which allows the dough to rest and rise a final time before baking. Each day, John balances a delicate set of variables that make up the difference between baking average bread, and baking great bread. Even with all his years of experience, John admits that he still makes mistakes, is still learning, and can never control everything. Every day, the bread comes out of the oven slightly different to the previous day. Perhaps if it were John’s sole passion, or his ‘bread and butter’, he might veer away from his traditional techniques, but John sees his baking as just one factor that contributes to his daily fulfilment. He bakes so that he has time for living. On a normal day, the fridge is usually filled by mid-morning, and John is free to spend the rest of the day growing vegetables and fruit, diving for crayfish and abalone, tending to his chickens or line fishing for flathead.
As he pulls steaming loaves from the oven, the room filling with the incredible aroma of freshly baked sourdough, John tells of the constant work involved in keeping a wood-fired oven alight. A significant amount of timber is needed to constantly fuel the oven - something John says would be an issue if he lived on a property without an abundant natural supply. Living in a national park like setting, surrounded by 40 acres of dense bushland, it’s an immense job for him just to keep the forest’s young trees at bay - so fortunately, he is never short of timber. Each log he throws on the fire has been personally milled, usually two years before entering the oven due to the time needed for the timber to dry out. It’s a process that requires constant discipline to ensure he will have enough fuel for the oven for years to come.
When I ask John why he believes he has found success selling his bread from the fridge, he attributes it to a fortuitous mix of influences. The location, the aesthetic of the old fridge, the novelty of an honesty system in today’s modern world, and of course the world of social media. Travellers planning a trip to Bruny Island often discover the fridge online before even stepping foot on the island, and instantly recognise it when they pass by on their way to Alonnah, Cloudy Bay and Cape Bruny. Pulling over to open the door of a roadside fridge, toss a few coins in a slot and choose a warm sourdough loaf to walk away with is an incredibly novel travel experience, and so uniquely Tasmanian.
But it’s not just tourists that have fallen in love with The Bruny Baker’s bread; the locals love it just as much. John tells me that the Bruny Island community has a very strong local focus, and that everyone is quite independant on the island. People live off the land a little bit more than on mainland Tasmania, and it’s not uncommon for residents to grow most of their own food. A barter economy is prolific among residents, and many love the exchanges they can make with other residents to source whatever they don’t have. The fridge actually came straight from the family kitchen of an Austrian cabinet maker on the island, no doubt in exchange for some of John’s bread, eggs from his chickens, fish he had caught or vegetables from his garden.
John weaves in heartwarming stories from the tightly knit community as he drops each loaf into a brown paper bag. On Saturday afternoons, John meets up with two friends to drink beer in a goat shed - a sweet meeting between a Russian, a German and a Kiwi. He tells me that the woman over the hill milks goats by hand, his Russian friend makes the most incredible prosciutto, and the celery top chopping board he uses each day came from his Austrian actor friend.
“We know everyone at a party, which is such a nice feeling, because it feels like family. It’s really lovely to have that space.”
With all of the day’s baking completed, I join John on his commute to the fridge, a couple of minutes down the forest-lined dirt driveway. A postman pulls up at the same time and hands a letter to John. They know each other by name, chat briefly and joke about me including this moment in my story. The fridge is covered in magnetic Scrabble pieces, and John takes a few moments to read the words various customers have arranged before scrambling the letters ready for a new set of visitors. I ask whether anyone has ever left rude messages, or vandalised the fridge, and he mentions a time he found it on its side, but thinks it was probably just kids having fun. It’s too heavy for most people to steal, he explains, probably weighing a few hundred kilograms. Even the overwhelming majority of people abide by the honesty system. John often receives bank transfers of a couple of dollars from customers short a few coins, and apologetic notes from others who left their payments a day or two late.
“A factor that has made the fridge so successful is the opportunity to be honest. People love to be honest, almost to the point of excruciatingly honest.”
Sliding the last loaf into the fridge, John shuts the door and steps back toward the car as a station wagon pulls off the road ahead - the day’s first customer. But for John, his work is already done. He may be The Bruny Baker, but that is such a small hat that he wears. He leaves this identity at the fridge each morning, and will spend the rest of the day as a husband and father, a business owner, a farmer, a fisherman or a friend. However he decides to spend his day, tomorrow, he’ll wake up as he has each morning for the past three years - as the baker who fills the fridge.