STIR THE POTS: Interview

Pip Agnew

 

 

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I first  noticed Pip Agnew on The Fresh Loaf blog he maintained for several years.Filled with details, photo's of his home baked breads to his entry into the ranks of professional baker. Inspired by his wonderful looking loaves, I absorbed and observed his milling, shaping, fermentation methods and ideas. When I finally asked him for an interview, he suddenly fell out of view for a couple of years, but recently he's reappeared and is baking again, he kindly filled in my interview questions to share his story here on Stir the pots

 

How did you become a bread necromancer?

My fascination in bread was an extension of a developing interest in food and exercise in my twenties. I was reading a lot of cooking blogs and had done a short stint as a dishy in a small café which was near a gym I frequented. It was on of the food blogs that I first came across the NY times article of Jim Laheys no-knead bread. It must have been close to when it was first published in the mid 2000s and I had no idea what I was doing when I started baking in a tiny stainless steel saucepan. I just kept baking and experimenting with the process. I can still clearly remember the first loaf I ever made. Its lodged in my brain because we really didn’t take photos of our food back then 😊

A local bakery had also started selling sourdough which was a completely unknown term to me and it wasn’t until I read a fantastic book by Gay Bilson called ‘Plenty’ where she romantically described the process of fermenting yogurt and her sourdough bread that I had to learn more about this mystery. This led me To Richard Bertinet and his book ‘Crust’ and by this stage I was well down the rabbit hole.

Around the same time I started frequenting the Freshloaf website (which I would later start a blog on in 2011) and it became my baking instructor. I would backward engineer as many formulas as I could to try and understand all the variables and why formulas were built the way they were and the frustration of formulas not giving the important details.

After reading a lot of blogs on the freshloaf and also the Farine MC I knew I had to purchase a mill and start milling my own flour and that’s what spurred me to start sharing what I was doing on the blog. The blog sort of just happened in its own organic way and the photography was just an extension of that. I was lucky enough that that blog opened lots of doors and opportunities for me. I should also give a big shout out to a tiny woodfired bakery that no longer exits called ‘Chalala’ that was operated a few hours from where I was living. I would occasionally travel up there for a weekend and help with the market bake in their Alan Scott oven and then sell at the markets. Anytime a I smell a woodfire I am transported back there. And now hear I am - I have travelled a path from Hobbyist to Amateur to somewhat professional and now back as a home-baker again.

The small bakeries I worked in were all learning experiences. Some were setup from scratch with just me in a kitchen and others were larger teams and I would be looking after bread in a wider Patisserie business. Some were woodfired, some were deck oven others were wheel in ovens. Each had their own methods and processes. In amongst that I switched from the blog to IG and started posting.

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Describe what you think when you're baking?

It’s usually a juggle. Whether I was baking professionally or at home it’s always a balance of elements, time and ingredients … probably the schedule and fitting everything into a plan. The schedule whether in the bakery in the home kitchen is always top of mind … make sure the dough is made correctly to fit the schedule.  

You’ve change recently from your first efforts in baking, where is your oven today?

In my kitchen and my front courtyard. I have a small woodfired oven in the courtyard and small electric oven in the kitchen. The challenger breadware has made baking at home a lot of fun as well. The woodfired oven takes time and I really only use it when I have a nice sunny weekend with nothing else planned.

How’s life changed for you since jumping from home baker to professional?

Well, since I have actually jumped from home baker to professional and back to home baker I would say I am getting a lot more sleep. To be frank the night shift and lack of sleep killed the love of bread for me for a long time. My mental health plummeted, and I was not in a good place for a long time. Mental health is not something I see being discussed much in terms of the night shift and long hard hours being done in bakeries around the world. It was hard on my family. It was hard on the people I worked for. I have heard it said that baking is a young person’s profession. I think there is something to that … especially once you start to add family life into the mix. So for the past 5 years I am back working as a graphic designer and have found a way to bring bread back into my life, let go of the resentment and disappointment and keep it for what it is – a way to feed my family and friends.

Baking great bread at home is way harder than in a bakery. I am not talking about the hours, sleep or physicality. I am talking about having a tangible loaf of bread in your hand at the end. Bakery mixers, batch sizes and professional ovens make a consistent product much, much easier. The opportunity to shape hundreds of loaves to adjust daily – you just become so attuned to it. I take my hat off to all the home bakers out there pushing to reach that same level of quality.

Is there a bread baking underground in Australia?

I am a bit too far removed from the bread world nowadays to honestly say. I have seen sourdough being talked about a lot more as a hobby since COVID arrived on our shores. It’s pretty mainstream nowadays and sourdough bread seems to be available in all the major centers (and even rural) and even the large supermarkets all carry what appears to be genuine sourdough.

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Both you and Ian Lowe caught my attention for being so clearly yeast infected, and for influencing us baking Instagram junkies. How’s that feel, being the “dudes?"

It was just fun at the time and it felt like a growing community of likeminded bakers. Being an influencer or making money from Instagram was never an intention or motive for me. I like to make bread and I like to take photos … they two just came together. I think if I was running my own business, I would have approached IG in a very different manner.

For a while you worked with wood burning oven at one of your previous bakeries, and now your back to conventional deck ovens, plus and minuses?

For consistency and volume a deck oven anytime … for the sheer romanticism and physicality a woodfired oven. The idea of a small wood-oven for friends and family small market baking seems like a nice retirement plan or side hustle one day 😊.

What inspires you through hard hours? Is it aesthetic, physical, or what makes bread so passionate?

Both of those, plus the reward of a tangible and nutritious product at the end of a shift. I have never really been pastry focused as I have enjoyed the simplicity and non-fussiness of bread. The opportunity to improve and adapt daily. There were lots of reasons I enjoyed the work and  I am grateful for the opportunities I had but I think that where I was in my life with a family and small children it was not the right choice for me or them.

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Are you solely using sourdough?

Mostly, but also enjoy making and eating well-fermented yeasted bread.

Are you the quiet baker?

Yessir!

Ian Lowe to me is a total revelation and inspiration, I first heard of him from his defunct blog through you. How are you either different or alike?

Differences? I was probably more concerned with aesthetic than Ian. I had also never really worked in professional kitchens so was a completely green in that environment while Ian had worked in kitchens his whole career. Ian probably says maybe a thousand more words per hour than me. Ian’s scientific, historical and cultural knowledge of bread is staggering. In comparison I am an intuitive baker with a much, much, much narrower field of understanding of any of these things.

Same? I think we were both interested in all sorts of breads. We were not driven by trends but more interested in making the most flavorsome bread we could.

If you could, describe your thought process in considering sources to create your own signature bread? I know the fig and anise is one you like, likewise I love the anise flavor.

It was always driven by flour or grains that were available to me. I love simple breads with simple and clear additions. Was not a fan of adding additions that couldn’t be easily perceived ie porridges. I enjoy the classics like Walnut bread, Fig bread or sesame. Breads that had a flavor profile you could recognize instantly and then I would try and match it to the sort of dough that would match the meal that loaf would be generally eaten at. I usually just made what I enjoyed eating.

When I was home milling we were eating a lot of wholegrain breads. I do enjoy them, but if I am honest, I enjoy a lighter and slightly whiter loaf. Whether it is just sifted wholewheat or a ratio of wholegrains ie the classic campagne.

I probably spend more time tinkering with starter feeding routines and flour mixes than I do with additions to dough.

 

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Do you prefer breads with or without add-ins?

Without … keep it simple 😊

What’s your bread you prefer making?

Changes all the time but at the moment I am quite obsessed with making direct method high extraction sourdoughs with folds to develop and then just cut and encouche. No shaping. Let the bread make itself.

Do you eat bread a lot?

Every day … and probably too much. Through the my darker days, no I hated it … stopped eating it altogether and I couldn’t find bread that I enjoyed eating

 

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Do you think the traditional “Old school “ baking in Oz is evolving because of you new and young bakers like yourself influenced from other places and other bakers, worldwide?

Mmm … The marketing side of it is? Cashing in on the terms?

Do you ever wish you could go to other lands and see and taste different breads?

I do, I think bread always tastes better when you are on holidays 😊… but I also think the ‘use what’s around you’ philosophy is strong with me I really want to make and eat the bread from where I live. COVID has reinforced this for me. There are so many amazing bakeries, farmers and millers in Australia that I would love to explore these first before traveling afar.

What do you like to do when you don’t bake?

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Spend time with our family and newly arrived Cavoodle puppy Pretzel. We live by the bay at Wellington Point in Brisbane so daily walks by the water and try and photograph as many beautiful sunsets and sunrises as possible.

I have lots of hobbies and obsessions. Let’s see, music is a big one. Playing piano, learning turn of the century banjo playing on my great grandfathers banjo (there are some videos on YouTube … lol) … I was also taking viola lessons for a year or so. There have also been many other hobbies over the years ... I like to learn things I think … keep the hands busy.

 

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Who inspires you?

Bakers who quietly and simply do their own thing. I am thinking of the Dave Millers, Gerard Rubaud (rip) and Roland Feuillas. I do see the irony in the fact that I am an IG wannabe baker posting and sharing content out to the world. In life I would say music is my biggest inspiration - I am always listening or playing music. IG has been another way of connecting to people through music.

Books that inspire you?

I am actually thinking of doing posts on IG of breads from books that have influenced me the most. The books by Maggie Glezer, Jim Lahey, Chad Robertson are my long term favorites.

Are you considering your own bakery?

Not really in the foreseeable future. The micro bakeries seem to be more of a viable thing, but I would only ever want to do it for fun or as a side hustle on my own. The intention behind it is more important for me nowadays. It would need to work for me … not the other way around.

 

 

END


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