It’s a chilly but enticingly clear and sunny morning in early June with winter quietly making its presence felt. I’m making my way over to Mt. Eden to meet the owner of one of Auckland’s award-winning bakeries. The suburb of Mt. Eden is bustling with activity and nowhere is this more evident than Olaf’s Artisan Bakery Café. The outdoor tables are full as cyclists and gym-goers enjoy a coffee in the morning sun. Brown paper bags decorate the tables evidently showcasing that these locals have stocked up on their favorite breads.
Once inside the café I’m greeted with the welcome smell of freshly baked bread. The bakery itself is in full view of the café so you can see the bakers and pastry chef’s busy at work. It’s clearly a busy time of day, so I feel particularly appreciative to have the chance to chat with Olaf about his journey into the world of sourdough bread.
Olaf prides himself on baking artisan bread. The term ‘artisan’ is thrown around a lot these days in the world of gastronomy, but what does it actually mean? A simple definition of an ‘artisan’ product is something that is hand made by a person who has mastered his or her craft. Olaf can certainly claim to fall into that category as the German-born New Zealand baker offers an impressive selection of hand crafted loaves and has been doing so for more than twenty years. We grab a table in the café and he enthusiastically begins to tell me about the bread he makes.
“Pure ingredients, long fermentation and easy to digest. That’s what it’s all about for us. Customers visit the bakery saying they can eat our bread but have trouble eating other breads. I explain that this is down to the long fermentation process that makes the bread easy to digest.”
Q: So where did it all start for you? What factors pushed you in the direction of becoming a baker?
A: Mum! She was a great cook and a good house baker. We used to have about 20 types of biscuit at Christmas time. As soon as I could reach my nose to the counter I was getting involved. My wife works in hospitality as well. I’ve always been a foodie.
Q: What brought you to New Zealand?
A: We wanted to live abroad for a long time and it came down to either Denmark or New Zealand. The people in Denmark are very similar to the Kiwi’s and we liked the way of life there. But the language was a bit of an issue. We came over to New Zealand for a holiday in 2004. We came back twice in 2005 to experience both seasons and we really liked it.
Q: You clearly have a large selection of breads on offer and use a variety of flour. Do you see a benefit in milling your own flour on-site?
A: There are a few bakeries that have the facilities in place to mill their own flour on-site and that can be exciting. But for me, I do not see any major benefit. In Germany we have a pretty long baking tradition and we like to mature the flour or get it matured. This is how I was brought up and it’s how I learned it back in Germany. Even though I like the idea of being able to mill some of our flour, we simply don’t have the space right now in this bakery.
Q: How old is your sourdough starter?
A: I have had my sourdough starter for about 20 years now, which is pretty young. I have 5 in total; wheat, rye, emmer, spelt and barley. The barley starter is in the freezer sleeping, I’m still in the process of developing some recipes.
Q: What is the benefit of having an older starter as opposed to a starter that might be a year or two old?
A: Marketing! But as well as that, you can maintain and mature your starter in a way that works well for you. Some bakers like a higher water content whereas others don’t. Some like a high level of acidity, such as San Francisco sourdough. I personally like that. We have an emmer sourdough here at the bakery, emmer being one of the oldest grains you can get. We import emmer from Germany and it results in a particularly sour sourdough which I really like.
Q: You mentioned that you have taken on some apprenticeships over the years in your bakery. What is the duration of an apprenticeship here in New Zealand?
A: We do a typical German apprenticeship which lasts for 3 years. We start the apprentices out with mixing and preparation. Then they gradually start to get into production as well. There is a lot of information to take in and many young people these days are limited in their concentration levels. There is a shortage here in New Zealand of skilled bakers who can perform well in this line of work.
Q: What is the best seller currently in the bakery?
A: We started out with about 10 different varieties of sourdough and they are all still available today. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster with best sellers. The most popular wholesale loaf would be ‘pain au levain’ which is a white sourdough. Other than that, Fig and Fennel is quite popular. It’s lovely with blue cheese. And then you have your particular customers who come in for certain breads.
Q: What is the most challenging sourdough bread to make?
A: All sourdough breads are a challenge, especially here in New Zealand. The dough is different every day, the temperature is different, the feel is different. And this is the challenge with training people in baking. If the recipe says that a certain amount of water is required, that might vary depending on certain variables such as temperature. The mixing times can also differ. Sometimes you need to mix for 30 seconds more or 30 seconds less, just to get the dough right. Getting this right only comes with experience.
Q: For people considering a career as an artisan baker, what words of wisdom or advice might you share?
A: You need to have the passion and commitment to work unsocial hours and wake up early. You need to be organized and disciplined. It can be a challenging line of work but it can also be rewarding. A big advantage with becoming a baker is that it’s like a language. You can travel to different countries and cultures to experience how bread is made. I personally enjoy the early starts when it’s really quiet and I’m working on the doughs. There was a writer who came to interview me when we started and he said, “you nurture your doughs into existence”. I really like that quote and feel it represents what we do here.
Q: Outside of this bakery, where was the best bread you have eaten?
A: Italy! In 2014 I spent some time in Lana in northern Italy working on some recipes. There is a big German influence with a lot of rye bread there. The further south in Italy you go the whiter the bread gets. I am also currently working on a recipe for Schiacciata which is a flatbread from Tuscany.
We finish up our chat in the café and Olaf gives me a tour of the bakery. The chefs are in full swing as they dish out appetizing items from the menu and the bakers are busy mixing dough. After inspecting the sourdough starters and getting a low-down of some of the processes in place, I’m led out back to the car park. “Here is where we handle a very important aspect of the business”, says Olaf. “Deliveries!”.
An old-school food truck imported from Germany with some creative customization is used to carry out daily deliveries to some of Auckland’s top restaurants. I ask if he has any plans for expansion, either on the wholesale side or opening another bakery. “No such plans for the near future. We offer an artisan product where every loaf is handmade. I have seen too many examples of bakeries expanding production which adversely drops the level of quality. Our priority is baking quality bread”.
Before leaving, Olaf gives me a loaf of ‘Fig and Fennel sourdough’ as well as a ‘Vinschgauer’ which is from South Tyrol in Italy. The fig makes for a surprising partnership with the fennel and goes particularly well with a nice blue cheese as suggested by Olaf. The Vinschgauer had an almost nutty taste with a chewy texture. I had most of it finished off before noon. It was outstanding.It’s always refreshing to meet someone that is passionate about what they do. If you like quality artisan bread and you find yourself in Auckland, be sure to pay a visit to Olaf’s Artisan Bakery Café in Mt. Eden.