A ‘bakery baking today’ sign is the last thing you’d expect to see on a remote dirt track to Farina, 600km north of Adelaide. Once a year, however, volunteers fire up an underground scotch oven to raise funds for the restoration of the town, which has been abandoned for the better part of a century.
On the edge of the desert in South Australia’s far north lies Farina – a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town so remote it is no longer inhabited. For most of the year, Farina is a ghost town, with nothing but stone ruins and the elevated railway water tank reminding passersby of a bygone era.
The Farina Restoration Group (FRG) chose to restore the town’s abandoned bakery to full working order before embarking on any other project – a stroke of genius that has brought a steady steam of astounded visitors from both north and south.
FRG first fired up the outback bakery five years ago and in 2013, operated from late April through to May. Its volunteers expertly shovel red dust out of the bakery, stoke the oven, field queries and serve customers. Now a celebrated Australian historic site and tourist attraction, the Farina bakery is maintained by volunteers, including Martin MacLennan, owner of Adelaide’s Bagel Boys Bakery.
When asked to travel to Farina in 2008 and see if the vintage oven was still in working order, Martin remembers thinking the idea was ridiculous – but curiosity got the better of him. He agreed to a temporary posting and has made the journey back every year since.
“I began to be intrigued about what could attract a bunch of retirees to such a place, but after visiting the site and taking part in the restoration community out there, I have become a regular volunteer,” Martin says.
“It is quite difficult to articulate what it is about Farina that draws you in. For me, I think it is almost like a lost community, having existed in the harshest of times and environments.
“The other volunteers and I feed off each others enthusiasm, particularly when the old oven is fired up. It proves that out here in the middle of the outback, is a living and working museum.”
The bakery, which produced bread for the town’s inhabitants as far back as the 1880s, is the only fully-intact building that remains in Farina. And apart from the oven sole being relaid, a couple of bricks replaced and some new paint, most of the bakery is in original condition – a remarkable achievement considering it stood unused for 80 of its 140 years.
The fact the bakery is underground could be one of the key reasons it remains largely in tact. While underground bakeries in Australia aren’t unheard of, they certainly weren’t the norm at the turn of the 20th century. For Martin, the design suggests the bakery’s original owners did their research.
“To place the oven in the ground makes sense on two counts. Firstly, there is less building work, as I presume they dug out and placed the walls in trenches, laid the roof and then dug out the dirt leaving the oven, into which the floor was laid and the door and fire box inserted. Secondly, the surrounding earth would have been a good insulator,” he says.
The oven is a typical scotch oven with a short internal wall separating the fire box from the oven chamber. Because the fire is in a separate but connected compartment, it can burn throughout the baking process without the baker having to move it to the side or rake it out. Nonetheless, it does require solid seasoned dry timber, such as mulga, and stoking four times a day for at least two days prior to use. On the third day, the oven can be used, however, the firings between baking are still required.
“By about day six or seven, the entire building is warm and all that is required is we rekindle a full fire box of timber an hour before baking and then two or three pieces of wood about every one-and-a-half hours to maintain the heat,” Martin says.
“We try not to bake anything while we have just placed fresh timber in the fire box as the initial burn is a bit fierce and scorching and carbon spotting can occur. Once the timber is burning more steadily we resume baking.”
With the help of a few modern aids, including an electric mixer and prover, the bakery sells a surprisingly diverse range of products.
“We sell a lot of buns, pasties, sausage rolls, muffins, bread and rolls, as well as whatever any of the volunteers wish to make,” Martin says.
“Because everyone is volunteering their time, apart from the stonemasons who are paid, we encourage everyone to make what they love, at their own pace and without any stress.
“There is usually at least one baker on hand to guide the process, but a lot of the baking process is carried about by volunteers who are just enthusiastic about getting the oven up and running.”
Interestingly, Farina is the Latin word for flour, named so by optimistic farmers who had hopes of transforming the land into fields of grain. While the area was initially prosperous, drought and dust storms, combined with the re-alignment of the Ghan railway and the closure of nearby gold and silver mines in 1927 led to a decreasing population. With the closure of the post office in the 1960s, the town was virtually abandoned.
With the burgeoning trend of ‘grey nomads’ however – retirees taking a long-term camping trip around Australia – Farina has become a popular staging post en route to tracks further north. Of course it helps Farina station has set up an accessible campground, complete with barbecues, fire pits, toilets and hot showers for little more than $5 per person per night.
“Farina and the bakery in particular provide an invaluable window into our post-settlement history,” Martin says.
“The ruins, post-preservation with the fantastic work including the information bay and photographic and information boards create an atmosphere that takes you back into the lives of the people who lived here.”
“Once the travelling masses come to know about this little old town and the camp grounds at the bottom of the Birdsville and Strzelecki tracks, it will become a must-see, most probably a must-stay, destination.”
Any bakers or interested persons who may like to volunteer for few days or for a week are welcome to join future projects. Interested parties are encouraged to contact Martin by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.