Flour, water, salt - and leaven. Nothing more is needed to make bread.

But to make great bread also takes skill, passion and a willingness to shape your waking hours around the demands of the dough.

SourBros' Matt Ellingham and John Wilson are the new kids on the bread making scene in Whanganui but they've quickly made a name for themselves.

People queue at their stall at the River Traders Market on a Saturday morning, waiting for the next batch of their sourdough bread to arrive, still warm from the oven.


John has an impressive baking pedigree, having baked artisan sourdough at famous Wellington establishments like ACME and Leeds Street Bakery.

He uses a method made popular by famous Californian baker Chad Robertson. It's characterised by a dough too wet to be kneaded on the bench. Instead, the dough rises through being regularly turned inside the bowl, before being hand-shaped into a freeform loaf.

Sourdough uses a leaven (also called a starter) to make the bread rise.

It's a mixture of wild yeasts and can be kept alive indefinitely if cared for properly. You can make your own by patiently waiting for a flour and water mixture to spontaneously ferment.

Miranda Milnes -- early starts are all part of the bread-making experience
Miranda Milnes -- early starts are all part of the bread-making experience

All bread used to be made this way - it was only with the isolation of specific types of highly active and predictable yeasts that bread began to be made with compressed, and then later dried yeast. It allows for a shorter rising time and more predictable results.

It suited larger-scale manufacturing that valued a standardised product and was widespread by the early 20th century.

But it doesn't taste like real bread, reckons John Milnes.

He's a familiar sight at the River Traders Market at his Geranium Bakery stall. His partner Miranda is the baker. You'll only glimpse her if you arrive very early. She's been pulling bread out of the oven through the small hours of Saturday morning, so after unloading the bread she heads home for a long nap.


"Have a taste of some real bread," John cheerfully calls out to passersby, waving at a tray of samples.

Miranda's a veteran bread baker. For years, she and John lived up the river at the Ahu Ahu ohu where everything was made from scratch. There, she baked bread in a wood-fired oven.

Miranda bakes a remarkable variety of breads and other baked goods for the market each week.

John and Miranda Milnes -- their bread is in demand at the River Traders market.
John and Miranda Milnes -- their bread is in demand at the River Traders market.

The three types of sourdough loaves are dense and flavoursome. The yeasted breads include a fruit loaf, cobs, foccacia-style loaves and the popular walnut bread. There are also crumpets and croissants plus some biscuits made by John.

Baking begins on a Wednesday with bulking up the sourdough starter. When the Chronicle visited on a Thursday morning, there was a flurry of activity in the commercial kitchen John and Miranda built in their renovated home.

The yeasted bread dough was being mixed, crumpet batter was being ladled into a cast iron frypan and bread tins were being loaded into the double oven.

The Milnes helped start the River Traders Market in 2004 and at first their stall was a fundraiser for the local Green Party branch. It's now grown to become their livelihood, although a percentage of profits are still donated to the party.

SourBros supplies a growing number of retail outlets, including The Burrow and the Victoria Avenue Bin Inn. The Rutland Arms is a customer and head chef Richard Corcoran is a big fan, declaring SourBros bread "the best I have ever tasted". The Citadel in Castlecliff is the latest customer.

Matt and John also sell at the market, just two down from the Milnes. It's a nice Whanganui touch that the bakers get on well. Miranda even came to the rescue in May when John ruined his starter, sharing some of hers so John could still bake that week.

"I met John about 18 months ago," says Miranda. "I knew he was a baker in Wellington and that he made fantastic bread."

She says the arrival of SourBros has notaffected their business a lot, although she does bake fewer sourdough loaves now.

SourBros bake at Lucky Bar, the Wilson Street establishment owned by friends. The chiller broke down just as they began baking, which was a big set-back. John had intended to retard his loaves - the bakers' term for chilling the rising loaves to slow the fermentation and develop more complex flavours.

As a significant side benefit, a chiller also allows bakers more flexibility with their schedules. Without one, John's been waking for work at 1.30am twice a week.

But late in June, they installed their own chiller (promptly dubbed "Pam"). Instead of 20 hours from start to finished loaf, it can now take more than 27, but John can wake up at 4.30am to bake loaves for the market.

"I'm a lifestyle baker now," John quips. "Seven hours sleep is so luxuriant.")

John is always extending his craft and latest flavours include apple and walnut, stout and fig and Jalapeno and cheddar.

SourBros bakes with organic flours. The wholewheat comes from pioneering biodynamic farm Milmore Downs, finely milled fresh to order in a Zentrofan mill.

But even the hot summers of the Canterbury plains can't produce the very strong flours that many bread bakers demand, high in gluten and protein. After various trials, John now opts for organic white flour from Australia.

Miranda buys some of her flour close to home, from Marton's certified organic Ngamara Farm.

For Putiki local George Jackson, bread baking is all about home, and family.

His late grandmother Ruiha Takarangi-Jackson (known to many as Nana Puggy) was from Rānana and George grew up with her rēwena, or Māori bread.

"Nan was a legend in the art of rēwena bread," he says.

George has been baking rēwena for about six years and he's converted his garage into a commercial kitchen. Resting on a top shelf inside is the old cast iron Dutch oven in which his grandmother baked bread.

Rēwena is a sweet, white loaf using a natural starter produced from potatoes. Many years after his nan passed away, George began baking rēwena for his kids, wanting them to have the same experience.

A cousin then returned from Auckland - with the "bug" from their nan. He was a chef, and had kept the bug going all that time by regularly baking. It's this starter that George now uses.

George bakes once a week for now but has big plans to take rēwena mainstream. The bug seems to approve.

"I have to bake on a schedule. The bug likes consistency and reliability," he says.

Three days before he bakes, George bulks up the bug by feeding it sugar and more water in which potatoes have been boiled. It's added to flour to make a dough that is then mixed, kneaded and left to rise in tins before baking.

George supplies a handful of independent outlets, including the Dublin Street butchery and Abbott Street dairy, but he's steadily preparing to up his production. He wants to see rēwena bread on the shelf in supermarkets.

He's baking two variations - the sweet rēwena people are now used to, and a recipe with far less sugar in it for those who enjoy the complex sour flavours.

"My generation, we like the sweet taste. But it's not how my grandparents ate it," he says.

George's favourite way to eat rēwena is with butter and jam - just the way his nan liked.

Shelly Forrest keeps the ovens fired up at Whanganui Pak'nSave whose bakery section is expanding
Shelly Forrest keeps the ovens fired up at Whanganui Pak'nSave whose bakery section is expanding

And on a bigger scale ...

While artisan bread makers are producing outstanding bread, it's in small quantities.

Most locals eat bread they buy from the supermarket. The Chronicle went behind the scenes at Whanganui's Pak'nSave and met with 2IC baker Shelly Forrest to learn more about bread baking on a much larger scale.

Shelly's spent 12 years here and is one of a dozen full or part-time staff in the bakery department.

The job calls for early starts. The first shift show up at 1am to mix the dough, pouring 30kg of flour at a time into the industrial mixer. (The bakery gets through up to six pallets of flour every week.)

Almost a hundred loaves can be baked at once, across five ovens. Bread is cooled to slicing temperature in just 18 minutes in a blast freezer. It will be bagged and on the shelf soon after the store opens.

For all the modern, industrial scale equipment, the bread still takes longer to rise on a cold morning.

New investment in bakery equipment is going to increase capacity and allow a later start time. The team are getting ready to make a wider range of speciality breads, as well as other baked goods.

For now, the biggest seller remains their white loaf. To turn out so much of a highly standardised product very quickly requires some high-tech help. Flour, water and yeast go into the dough, along with a "supersoft concentrate" that includes sugar, soya flour and vegetable oil, plus an improver (which helps bread rise), emulsifier (which keeps bread fresher for longer) and enzymes. (The ingredients aren't listed on the loaf wrapper but you can ask for them at the bakery department.)



More about the story behind Geranium Bakery: bit.ly/GerBakery

Want to bake sourdough at home? John will run a breadmaking workshop as part of the Permaculture weekend on 8-9 September. Meanwhile, he recommends tutorials (including video) from The Perfect Loaf. Prepare to be daunted.