Australian Baking Business catches up with Ron Bruns to find out how a pedigree pastry chef from Germany became synonymous with Australia’s most iconic baked food – the meat pie.
In September, German-born pastry chef Ron Bruns was awarded top gong at the prestigious Official Great Aussie Pie Competition for his seafood marinara creation. It’s the third such trophy awarded to Bremen Patisserie, which sits just behind the Esplanade in the beach town of Umina, New South Wales.
Incorporating a traditional Italian pasta recipe into a pie is impressive in its own right. Nonetheless, the feat is made even more commendable by the fact Ron learnt the trade in a German department store, where strudels and black forest cakes were common, but meat pies unheard of.
Back in the 1980s, Aussie bakeries were a confusing place for Ron. There were no croissants and there were no tortes. Instead, owners made a living from sausage rolls and white sliced bread.
“I could speak English, but it was very hard to adapt to the Australian system of baking,” Ron says.
“I had come from a highly-advanced and efficient large German business, where the pastry section alone had around 15 chefs all working eight hours a day to make thousands of croissants, black forest cakes and desserts. But in Australia, the situation was certainly very different.”
Then there was the issue of pies. Unlike the sweet, cherry or apple-filled pies Ron was so familiar with, Australian pies were savoury and, being the ’80s, made with steak. If the baker was on the adventurous side, patrons would perhaps be offered a few pea-and-ham or chicken varieties.
It’s a far cry from the gourmet entries in this year’s Official Great Aussie Pie Competition, which saw a sweet Thai chicken, a ratatouille, and even a crocodile pie among the entries.
Today, Bremen Patisserie alone boasts several epicurean flavours, including mango curry chicken and peanut, Mexican beef, beef burgundy and mushroom, korma curry chicken and butter chicken.
Perhaps the fact Ron didn’t grow up eating meat pies means he is more open to challenge traditional recipes and techniques. Or perhaps his imaginative flavour combinations can be attributed to an affinity with the European classics. Regardless, 24 years after opening, Bremen Patisserie is now recognised as a place to find pies that simply can’t be found elsewhere.
It’s not just the eclectic flavours that have boosted the bakery’s reputation, the pies themselves are cooked to perfection – and Ron has the awards to prove it. Bremen Patisserie has taken home around 400 awards in just less than 20 years, 30 of which are gold.
“Our experience with the Official Great Aussie Pie Competition started back in 1995, when my wife told me to enter. I remember saying to her, ‘what are you talking about? I can’t win a pie competition!’ But men have to listen to their wives,” Ron says, laughing at the memory.
“That first year I was disqualified because I put too much meat into the pie. One of the organisers at the time, John Ross, said the pie was beautiful, but that I should have read the criteria more carefully.”
Ron took the advice to heart and, from that point on, has won a medal in every competition he has entered. And, after taking home a string of silver and bronze awards, Bremen Patisserie took home the Overall Gourmet Winner trophy in the 2000 Official Great Aussie Pie Competition.
“At that time our favourite family meal at home was a potato au gratin with beef and burgundy. My wife said I should make it into a pie and again I listed to her. There is a common theme here!
“I jazzed it up a little. I put it in a porcelain dish, I cooked it off, I added some red wine and some thyme – it was lovely.”
From there, the family-run bakery again won gold in 2004. However, first place was tied with legendary Queensland pie makers Goldsteins Bakery, making this year’s exclusive title all the more sweet.
The seafood marinara pie certainly has the ‘wow’ factor. To make the filling, Ron takes a marinara mix and adds fresh prawns, thyme and red wine for a full, rich flavour. After frying up garlic, onion and butter, Ron pours boiling water over the seafood and then cooks it all together. With the addition of white wine, chicken stock, butter and flour, Ron thickens the mix until it has the consistency of gravy and then folds in the seafood. The description alone is enough to whet the appetite.
“The ingredients are fresh and good quality, which, of course, improves the taste. We source meat from the local butcher and take care not to use any animal fats. We stick to respected companies like EOI, which produce really nice margarines that are vegetarian based,” he says.
“My wife and I like to offer customers what we would want to eat ourselves. We want food to be full of flavour and for people to really enjoy what they are eating.”
The only exception to this rule is the bakery’s most famous offering, the Flaming Ron pie. At 1,463,700 scouville heat units, it’s marketed as the hottest pie in the world and customers are required to sign a waiver before eating it, exonerating the patisserie of any responsibility for health issues relating to the pie’s intensity.
The pie gained notoriety after appearing on the Today Show earlier this year, when host Karl Stefanovic became red-faced and ill after struggling to eat it. The footage became a YouTube sensation, appearing on news websites around the world. Not long after, presenters on The AFL Footy Show featured the pie in a comedy segment, boosting the patisserie’s reputation on a national scale.
“Money could not buy this kind of publicity. People came from a long way away to give it a go and, even today, I sent four frozen Flaming Ron pies on ice up to Queensland,” Ron says.
“It spikes people’s competitive streak. I could charge $95 for it and people would still buy it!”
Pies are not the only products on offer at Bremen Patisserie. At any given time, the counter displays a range of German-inspired pastries, including cherry strudels, apple turnovers, Florentines, brandy snaps and baked cheese cakes, as well as tiramisu, quiches, crumble cakes, ANZAC biscuits and sausage rolls.
While Ron used to sell all types of bread and rolls, today he only bakes German rye bread due to the unfortunate positioning of a franchise bakery.
“A Baker’s Delight opened right in front of us, which actually gave us a great opportunity to focus on regional specialities from Germany and from Europe,” he says.
“Now, we concentrate on cakes and meat pies, with a strong fresh coffee offering as well.”
In fact, coffee is the patisserie’s bestseller. Ron roasts his own Arabica bean-based house blend on the premises and says customers enjoy the strong, but not bitter, taste.
The patisserie also sells seven high-quality coffee blends from around the world, with different strengths and tastes. Some have a soft, intense flavour such as the Nicaragua Matagalpa blend, which is known for its lingering aftertaste. Others have a rich, full flavour, such as the New Guinea Organic A Grade Light blend, which has a chocolate overtone and is grown in soil that is totally free of pesticides.
“Roasted coffee beans are fresh for just one week after roasting, even with the advanced packaging we have available today. After this time, the beans are stale. Unfortunately a lot of coffee drinkers have never tasted fresh roasted coffee – the beans have a uniquely clean flavour,” Ron says.
“I get a lot of pleasure out of the theatre of coffee roasting and we like to share this experience with our customers, who can come and watch the green beans turn a golden brown before their eyes and smell the sweet aroma of freshly roasted coffee that fills the bakery.”
It’s a lot to fit into a suburban bakery that is little more than 25m from front to back. However, Ron says he enjoys working in close quarters with his seven staff, several of whom are family.
“I’ve always loved it here. We started with nothing and we made everything in this shop ourselves. People are made feel very welcome here and there are always customers sitting comfortably at the six tables out the front, really enjoying their food,” Ron says.
“It’s a happy place to be, because my wife is here working with me. I met Helga when I was 15 and we have been together every day. She’s the loveliest person you could ever meet and she helps create a very happy environment.”
Ron’s son, Daniel, is also a baker and completed his apprenticeship at Bremen Patisserie. His decision to pursue a career in baking extends the family trade to four generations.
“My grandfather had a bakery and my father was a pastry master and general manager of bakery ingredients for a very large German company. I learnt in one of the best places in West Germany and now I have been able to pass this collective knowledge on to my son. Daniel is 31 and just like Jamie Oliver – he really is very creative and clever when it comes to efficiently running the business,” Ron says proudly.
“Daniel actually made the winning seafood marinara pie this year. Last year I put too much chicken stock in it and the pie was very salty. This year, he organised me. He not only made a great pie, he revolutionised the production process. I used to cook about three trays for each entry, but this year, Daniel instigated the ‘10 entries, six trays and 12 pies of each’ system. It took half the time and when the pies came out, I knew instantly we had a winner.”
With such a successful product, the team behind Bremen Patisserie have entertained the idea of franchising in Germany, where savoury pies would be something of a novelty and according to Ron, would cause “an absolute sensation”.
While Ron’s background of organising more than 2000 croissants a day means he would certainly have the business nous to do this, for now, he is happy giving Umina customers what they want.
“I just want the customers to stay happy with the products and for the business to grow naturally and sustainably. I really would like to do this for the rest of my life. Running a patisserie is a lovely thing to do,” he says.
“My father once said to me, ‘find something you like doing and make money from it’. What wonderful advice.”