Ox Noonan, owner of bakery Ox the Baker, prefers to distance himself from the artisan baker label (he says it’s been “overused”) and prefers to call himself a craftsman. “I make bread the oldest way possible using just flour, water and salt,” he says.
Noonan has been in and out of the bread business for decades. In July this year, he opened his South Melbourne bakery with Salvatore Malatesta of St Ali. Here, he focuses on his signature range of loaves: the traditional country loaf and a mixed grain loaf with wholemeal and rye flours, using Australian ingredients. Each one takes upwards of three days to mix, knead, and ferment before it goes in the oven.
“There’s no set start and finish times for me, sometimes I’ll work through the night, other times I’ll start at 3am until about noon, and I’ve gone 24 hours without a good night’s sleep,” he says. When he’s at work, Noonan will be checking on the dough, which gets a thorough kneading in a big electric mixer. After a good bashing, the dough is pulled out of the mixer, rested on the bench and then divided into loaf-sized portions.
“After the dough’s rested, I shape them before they go into the bannetons [wicker bread forms traditionally used in French baking], where they’ll stay on racks for anywhere between 12 to 18 hours.”
It’s in this time period where the real magic happens: the process of fermentation. Noonan is currently a PhD supervisor on a research project looking into digestibility of wheat when it’s been fermented. “The science is still a work in progress, but we’d like to prove that by fermenting dough for long periods, people with gluten sensitivities may find bread more tolerable.”
A firm believer that old-school baking techniques are best, Noonan refuses to use commercial yeasts or bread improvers. Instead, a crucial component to his loaves is the leaven, a viscous liquid yeast that is made when a water and flour mixture is left to ferment.
“My leaven has its roots in the late 1800s; it’s been passed down and fed for over 130 years. We feed the leaven every day with organic flour and filtered water. It still gets mixed by hand, the way it’s been for hundreds of years. The leaven evolves with what’s in the environment and that gives the bread a richer, deeper flavour in the bread. You’ll notice the difference in flavours day to day, no two loaves are the same.”
Good things come to those who wait, and good bread needs time and the watchful eye of a craftsman who cares what goes into his loaves.