Phil Agnew is a 35-year-old home baker from the mostly sunny city of Brisbane, Australia. He works as a graphic designer but spends his bus commutes planning recipes for his next bake. Every Saturday, he then bakes a new batch of naturally leavened bread made with his home milled flour to share with family and friends.
Phil posts his recipes and beautiful bread photography on a blog he publishes at the artisan baker community, The Fresh Loaf.
In this interview, Phil tells his bread story and shares some of his thoughts on what makes bread special.**
Jarkko: Can you tell a bit about your background? How did you get excited about baking bread?
Phil: I grew up in a small country town. I am not a city kid even though I live in one now. My parents are grounded people, so we were raised with awareness about the value and nutrition of good food.
I have a distinct memory of my father baking bread rolls in my grandparents’ bright yellow kitchen. He had a damp cloth sitting over rising bread rolls, and I remember him talking about yeast and keeping the dough warm and out of drafts. It’s a special memory for me.
I became excited about baking my own bread when I read an article on Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread. Up until this point I had made some simple yeasted breads and pizza dough but without much understanding of what I was doing. I was just following steps in a recipe.
The no-knead process was something new and exciting for me. The first attempt tasted fantastic and so did the second, apart from giving myself really nasty burns when picking up a scalding hot pot. A mistake I have never made since.
About this time, a small boulangerie had opened down the road that sold “real” sourdough breads. This was something completely unknown to me. So it all was kind of happening at the same time. I was experimenting with no-knead breads at home making all kinds of concoctions plus buying and eating quality sourdoughs.
Then one day, when passing through a book shop, I decided to browse the food section for a book on bread baking and found Richard Bertinet’s book Crust. It all changed from that moment on. I bought it, raced home and poured over it before spending the next week preparing my first natural levain (sourdough). I haven’t stopped baking and learning since.
I enjoy so many aspects of baking bread. It is a tactile process which utilizes all of my senses. There is an ongoing history and tradition encompassing endless skills and processes to understand. It brings an appreciation and gratitude to the food we eat, but most of all, it is a way of sharing and bringing together family and friends.
Jarkko: Where are you now as a baker?
Phil: Ha, still a novice I think, with much to learn. Being able to write my own formulas with a finished bread in mind was very important to me and is something I have worked hard at for the past couple of years. I often backward engineer other bakers formulas to understand why they would do things and what effect that would have on a finished loaf.
Jarkko: Why bread? How would you explain your passion for bread to someone who is not a baker herself?
Phil: I have been asked that question a few times by people — why bread?
It completely captivates my thinking. I can’t imagine a day when I am not thinking about bread that I want to make or flavor combinations I wish to try. To see a loaf rise in the oven made from nothing more than flour I have milled, water, and salt is a miracle that still stops me in my tracks. It’s magical.
It brings me closer to the present moment. I have to be aware of temperatures, time, where I am and what I am doing. I smell and taste the levain to judge its ripeness. I feel the dough develop and strengthen as its kneaded and smell the aromas as the fermentation continues. I use my eyes and fingers to judge the final proof, before listening for the hollow tap of a well-baked loaf. All my senses are involved.
Jarkko: What’s your favorite moment in the process of baking a loaf of bread?
Phil: Watching someone taking the first bite.
In the baking process, though, I would say giving the dough a stretch-and-fold and feeling the life and strength that fermentation has given it.
Jarkko: In one of your recent blog posts you mention that you are baking weekly loaves to a friend. Are you planning to go further along this path into professional bread baking?
Phil: This is a hard question for me. It torments me. I have helped a friend a few times bake bread in his Alan Scott wood-fired oven to sell at farmers markets. It is hard work, but I love it. We were involved in the entire process from mixing by hand, baking and finally selling to happy customers. It is very fulfilling.
A long-term plan would be to do something similar part-time on a small scale and supplement it with another income, but I am at a point in my life where this is not yet possible, so I am learning quite a bit of patience. Actually, the blog has been a real blessing for me as it has given me a creative outlet plus contact with a great community of bakers. The photography has also changed how I think about my future role with bread. I’m just not sure how.
Jarkko: How often do you bake? Do you have a weekly baking schedule, or how do you find the time to bake bread?
Phil: Saturday is my bake day, but now that I have picked up a few customers along the way I have had to add some bakes during the week but so far this has not added too much work. I often spend an hour or so the day before tweaking formulas, milling flour, and building levains. The formula writing usually happens during the week while riding in buses.
I used to bake whenever I could, often to the detriment of a nightly routine but now I find setting a day aside for it much more relaxing and beneficial. Adding the blog into the equation has certainly increased the amount of time I spend baking and thinking about baking, but my partner Nat is very supportive. She sees my passion and a place for it in our future.
Jarkko: How did you decide to start the blog?
Phil: The idea for the blog came about soon after I had purchased the mill. I was really nervous about baking my first loaf of wholegrain bread with freshly milled flour. When it came out beautifully I felt like I had to start sharing my breads and what I was doing. I was very excited. I had been a quiet visitor on the Fresh Loaf website for many years, so it is nice to be able to give something back to the community that I have learned so much from.
Jarkko: How has blogging affected the way you bake?
Phil: I think the blog has affected my baking quite profoundly. I now dedicate almost a day to baking and depending on the photos this can spill into part of the next. And I don’t usually factor in the writing and transcribing of formulas which can take quite some time.
Initially, I put a lot of pressure on myself to make each posting better than the last… I soon learned to relax and write and bake for my life and not try and impress others. Be more natural.
The best part for me though is responding to comments and questions. I still get a real kick out of the interaction with people who have a similar passion.
Jarkko: How about in the future, what kind of plans do you have your blog?
Phil: At this stage of my life, I think the blog will continue to have a life of its own. I am not actively pushing it and have no special plans, but it does seem to be evolving and growing of its own accord.
The idea of taking it away from The Fresh Loaf to another domain doesn’t really interest me as I want to keep that interaction.
There are a few places (bakeries/mills) that I would like to visit and photograph but at this stage, they are just ideas.
Jarkko: Do you have a bread recipe you are known for?
Phil: I bake a sourdough loaf with fig and aniseed. It’s my favorite plus a favorite of many I know. Aniseed is a polarizing flavor for many people. They either love it or hate it.
Jarkko: Where do you look for information on baking? Have you taken courses or are you completely “self-taught?”
Phil: I am “self-taught.” I find when you are passionate about something learning isn’t a chore anymore. I absorb as much as possible both by reading and experimenting. I have read about and tried for myself so many different methods that after a while you begin to get a feel for what works best for you and the bread you want to make.
I have a shelf dedicated to bread books much to the amusement of visitors, plus websites like The Fresh Loaf have fantastic communities of knowledgeable and creative bakers that willingly share advice and ideas. It’s very inspiring.
In the end, though, I have probably learned the most by the bakes that went horribly wrong. A failure forces you look deeper into your process and the decisions you made. You are then challenged to make changes and try again. And sometimes again.
Jarkko: Which bread making book have you learned the most from? And what book would you recommend for someone just starting out?
Phil: That’s a tricky one. Technically the book I learned the most from and inspired me most is The Bread Builders by Dan Wing and Alan Scott. It is not a book of recipes but an in-depth investigation of hearth breads, natural levains, and masonry ovens.
I guess the book for someone starting out would have to suit the style of bread they want to make and the amount of time they are willing to spend. Maggie Glezer’s Artisan Baking is a great book as an overview, plus it has the advantage of listing the formulas under experience levels. For someone beginning in baking it has breads using commercial yeasts which can be baked and refined before moving on to sourdoughs if they desire.**
So what do I want my bread to be like? This question only found its way to me at the end of a long week. A long week with too much time spent looking at what other bakers/bakeries were doing. A week with too much time spent on other people’s lives and not my own. A week with too much time spent on wondering what I could possibly bake for the blog … and of course this is an endless ever-growing list.
For me, this seems to be the wrong way to go about it. Better to bake for my life and show the results, whether they are same and mundane or new and exciting. Even the same and mundane is never really the same and can be quite a challenge as we all know.
— From Phil’s blog
A Home Base For Amateur Bakers
The Fresh Loaf is an active and friendly community of “amateur bakers and artisan bread enthusiasts,” as the web site’s tag line will tell you. Started by Floyd Mann seven years ago, it has become the number one go to place for bread making advice online.
The site contains a lot of information for the home baker, but most importantly it’s the home for an active forum and a set of baker blogs. Anyone can join the discussion, ask a question, or start a blog.
To learn more about The Fresh Loaf, visit the web site — just be prepared to spend a few hours if it’s your first visit. There is a lot to see.