The Woodfired is a baker who followed a train line to find a wood-fired oven baked in one hundred years of history. Two decades later, Andrew Ritchie shows no sign of cooling off.
Andrew Ritchie’s love of baking began as a child in a small country town in Victoria thanks to his Hungarian neighbour’s home cooking. Pursuing a trade at Melbourne’s William Anglis Institute over the years that followed he worked in country bakeries right through to bulk production bakeries prior to moving to Perth in 2000.
What set him on the path towards historic baking techniques was his time at New Norcia Bakery. Previously known as the New Norcia Monastery Bakery, where for decades the monks had baked bread using the wood-fired oven, this traditional technique became a calling for Ritchie and sent him on his search to open The WoodFired Baker in Perth’s Maylands. A town rich with independently owned delicatessens, bars and cafes.
Before he became The Woodfired Baker, Andrew honed his skills by building a portable wood-fired oven in his backyard making pizza for friends and family before following the old train lines in Perth in search of a bakery of his own.
In 2006 he peered into an art gallery window where he discovered an old baker’s oven.
“I found one (wood-fire oven) that was in an old art gallery in a heritage-listed building,” Andrew says.
“It was old and run down, having not been used in forty-five years. We started the restoration work of the oven and setting the building up as a bakery, including a small dough room and oven room.”
Three-months of restorations, during which Andrew set about carefully restoring the oven to its former working glory. After three months of bricklaying, metalwork and repointing, the firebox was stacked with timber and the was oven lit.
The oven, built by Australian company Metters Limited, had been installed circa 1920 for German migrant and baker, Georg Rossbach. Georg and his son baked bread for the residents of Maylands, while his wife and two daughters delivered the loaves door-to-door. Fuel for the fire came from the local wood yard in the same street.
“We know the oven was baking before 1920, owned by a German immigrant family called the Rossbach’s their descendants still live in the area today,” Andrew says.
“One of the Rossbach’s daughters would ride up to 25 kilometres a day to deliver the bread, it was a real family effort running the bakery.”
When the Second World War began, the locals turned on Georg Rossbach and his family and he was sent, alongside fellow German immigrants, to an internment camp on Rottnest Island – a prison for enemy citizens of wartime. Sadly the bakery shopfront was vandalised before eventually being leased out.
The bakery changed hands several times until in 1967, its last owner was baker Ted Aldridge whose grandchildren still live locally, hung up his apron. The building was no longer a bakery, and in the decades that followed it became an antique shop, a real estate agency and a retail store before becoming the art gallery that Andrew discovered.
The century-old oven now makes over 1500 loaves a week including Andrew’s specialty wood-fired organic sourdough.
“The overall process for our organic sourdough is 10 to 12 hours,” he says.
“Wood-fired baked bread offers a unique smoky tinge with the wood burning for six hours before the loaves are loaded in.
“While the taste is worth it, the challenge lies in the management of doughs and proving time is important, with five to seven doughs all going into the oven at one time.
“we manage the temperature of the oven by swaddling the floor of the oven to cool it down.”
Andrew still loves his days spent at the bakery, “In winter it’s a beautiful place to work – though come summer when you’re loading the oven it could be 40 degrees in the room,” he says.
After entering the farmers’ market and wholesale scene two years ago they opened a café component with retail now their main trade. This is ideal due to the limited amount of loaves they can cook at one time.
“There’s a real focus on supporting your local business and community. When we started at the farmers’ markets there were maybe four available in Perth at the time, I reckon there’d be 15 now,” he says.
“It provides a great sense of community and relationships between the producer and consumer.”
So, after two decades of success what does the future of The Woodfired Baker look like for Andrew?
“It’s not that often people get the opportunity to bake in a beautiful wood-fired oven so we think it would be great to have bakers come and pick up some tips,” Andrew says.
“So teaching the technique, including mixing and moulding by hand, is definitely in our future.”
For a historical wood-fired delight you’ll find The Woodfired Baker in Maylands, or at the Perth City Farm Farmer’s Market and Subiaco Farmers’ Market