“Bread is what we are,” comments Peter Venter, the down to earth baker who opened Bread – the Artisinal Bakery – in Lillian Ngoyi Road opposite Windermere Centre in June this year. By his own admission, he is not a morning person, but he is up by 4am and baking by 4.30am.
It takes four hours to get a batch out of the oven. Once the first one comes out, others follow at 30 minute intervals.
From Monday to Wednesday, he makes 40 loaves per day. From Thursday to Sunday, he turns out about 60 each day. His range includes a white ciabatta, a whole wheat, chilli and rosemary, a rye bread and a seeded health loaf. On Wednesday, he makes an Italian parmesan loaf and on Friday, the popular Jewish kitke plaited bread.
His speciality is a black bread that lives up to its name. He hints that some of the secret ingredients are sage and Black Sea salt. It pairs well with the likes of an oxtail potjie. Alternatively, one can add cream cheese, smoked salmon and drizzle on some pesto. Many people simply come in for “a white loaf” while an olive and rosemary ciabatta is proving popular.
“We change it around. We even do a black bagel. I started with pretzels yesterday and they are selling well,” he says.
Although the bakery opens at 7am, the bread is not yet ready and people drink coffee, read the newspaper and wait.
By about 8am, the smell of freshly baked bread wafts through the shop.
Some cooling loaves go into brown paper bags for orders and the remainder into baskets at the counter. By 2pm the majority of the bread is sold – although Venter says he tries to ensure that some loaves remain in the baskets until at least 4pm.
The trick is not to bake too late as that would leave unsold loaves at closing time which cannot be sold the next day.
Despite the fact that there are only maybe three true artisinal bakeries in Durban, the market for crusty, heavy loaves produced by a baker who is more craftsman than cook is gathering momentum in the city.
In short, artisinal bread is made by hand using traditional techniques while commercial sliced and bagged breads are manufactured. The commercial staple is the product of bleached flour, industrial yeast and dough conditioners, high pressure aeration and chemicals and additives to enhance taste, texture and shelf life. Artisanal breads are produced using traditional techniques, organic ingredients and whole grain and stone ground flours.
While ‘real bread’ has always been integral to European cuisine, it took until the eighties for what is now called ‘the bread revolution’ to begin in the Unites States and then gather momentum in Britain and Australia.
This has grown to the point where neighbourhood artisan bakeries have evolved into micro bakeries in much the same way as craft breweries have morphed into micro-breweries and have invented a whole new segment of that market.
This is still some way off in South Africa where artisanal bread only began to take a small slice of the market when the organic food movement gathered momentum in the Western Cape about 10 years ago, followed by Johannesburg.
Venter never consciously set out to be an artisan baker.
After qualifying at the Johannesburg International Hotel School, he has been in kitchen.
It was only during a course at the Westville Hotel run by Taste magazine and Sanlam in 2013, that he discovered his love for baking and began making and selling bread to people in his neighbourhood. Soon, they were phoning in orders.
However, he says he began to take this more seriously when he came second in last year’s Unilever Chef of the Year Competition.
Venter, who grew up on a farm in the Free State, planned to return to the small town of Parys to run his own bakery.
He and his wife, Lucy, had packed up their Durban home at the beginning of this year and were ready to head into the hinterland to set up shop when things began to go wrong. The first bad news was that they would have to buy-in expensive water with which to bake as the quality of tap water which came from the Vaal River was dubious.
Then came a dispute over the lease, followed by the startling discovery that the removal company they’d hired to transport their household goods was a fly by night.
Venter believes that the message was clear – stay in Durban and open a bakery here.
They managed to convince their landlord to let them stay and began unpacking.
However, the one thing that Venter did not want to do was retract his resignation from the Diakonia Centre where he had been catering manager for around 13 years.
Determined to pursue his dream but all too aware that he was now out of work and needed an income fast, he says he began earnestly looking for a suitable site.
During the eighties when he lived in Steele Road, Morningside, he often pointed out twin shops in Windermere Road, saying he would love to have a shop there.
Driving past about three decades later, he realised that both shops were available. The one in which he now finds himself used to be an antique shop.
The adjacent shop will be transformed from a dress shop into a deli within the next month or two and the two intend working together.
He has decorated the shop himself. “I knew the style that I wanted. It had to be something light and playful, not dark and bohemian. That is where the old ceiling boards, raw wood and handing baskets came in. This is almost French country style,” he said.
Remaining in Durban proved an easier option when it came to sourcing equipment. “Durban is a big city so it is easy to get what you want. Where would you get ovens and catering equipment from in Parys?” he asks.
In addition to artisinal bread, Venter also sells pastries, muffins, tarts, fridge cakes and pies.
Fresh organic eggs harvested from beneath trees on a farm in Richmond arrive on Fridays together with homemade marmalade and jam from the same farm.
He also makes his own range of jams – orange chocolate, strawberry chilli and grape and ginger.
Venter opened on July 13 to what proved to be a good trading day. Little has changed since then except, perhaps, the layout of the bakery itself.
He has a good business background as Bread is his third business. During the eighties, he owned a coffee shop called Temptations in the Berea Centre. He went on to run the Déjà Vu Restaurant in Queensburgh.
Right now, he says, it is still early days and he doesn’t have a clear idea of the road ahead.
Asked if he’d consider adding more shops or even franchising his concept, he hesitates.
“I guess I’m a bit of a control freak. Each and every loaf of bread I make myself. I do everything from scratch. There’s always the danger that it would lose its character,” he says.