Sourdough in suburbia


Neville Chun's neighbours must love Wednesday evenings. That's when the aroma of freshly baked bread fills their little Naenae street, making it smell like a giant European bakery.

Its source is a games room-turned- commercial-grade kitchen in Chun's family home, where the former garden centre owner now turns out artisanal sourdough bread.

"The whole street knows when I'm baking, " he laughs. "But it's a nice smell, it's not like I'm making compost or something."


Chun, 56, is something of a newcomer to baking, even though his loaves look like he's spent his whole life perfecting his craft. His background is actually in plants - for 70 odd years three generations of his family owned the Zenith garden centres in Lower Hutt.

 "My mother's father started it, then my Mum and Dad worked there, then we [Chun and wife Junko] took over.

 "As a child, I can recall sitting in an apple box behind the counter while Mum and Dad were serving."

 When he closed the garden centre in 2005, Chun finally had the time to pursue other interests.

"I always had the challenge in the back of my mind about making bread, but I never had the time when we had the garden centre to work out the whole process, " he says.

 "Once we closed the garden centre it gave me the time to think about it a bit more."

 Chun did more than just think about it, setting up a certified kitchen at home with some of the dismantled parts from the garden centre cafe and a commercial bread baking oven bought from a friend.


His original breads were simple yeasted loaves baked in tins - "Poorman's Bread" - then he progressed into organic artisan French-style breads and sourdough.


"I started dabbling in sourdough, but there's a little bit of a code to crack to make good sourdough. Once I managed to unlock that, I was away."

Sourdough bread relies on wild yeasts to rise, unlike most commercial bread, which uses processed yeast and improvers. It takes a long time - about two days - to go from fermenting dough to finished loaf.

Once he got the hang of things, Chun started to bake a couple of loaves a week for his children, nine- year-old William and seven-year-old Aiko, to take to class at Rudolf Steiner school Raphael House.

"Then some of the teachers and other parents started to ask if I'd take orders. It just sort of mushroomed from there. I went from two loaves to about 50 for the school, and I also bake for Cultured [Petone] and Commonsense Organics [Lower Hutt]."

He has upgraded his kitchen to cope with the demand, now using a monster commercial steam-injected oven that can bake 20 loaves at a time and a huge 66-litre spiral dough mixer.

Chun's sourdough is made from a starter he began two years ago, using organic honey wheat from Demeter in Amberley, North Canterbury. He only uses organic flours in his breads and no artificial preservatives.

He also sells various bits of breadmaking kit and dehydrated sourdough cultures from Europe and the United States.

"I got quite interested in bread- related products, like bannetons, which are really useful for sourdough, in fact you can't really make it without one. Basically a banneton is a bowl that holds the sourdough while it's proving [rising] and supports its shape. Sourdough tends to be quite a wet, sticky dough, so if you're proving it in a bowl it sticks to the sides and you can't get it out. These bannetons are imported from Germany and they're made from conifer mash. It feels a bit like cardboard, so the dough doesn't stick to the surface. Some of them have pretty patterns inside, which then transfer to the bread.

"I also sell a Danish dough whisk, which looks like the weirdest thing ever invented but it works really well for mixing wet doughs.

Chun imports dehydrated sourdough cultures, which he rehydrates, builds up and sells on Trade Me. In a coals to Newcastle sort of story, one of his culture suppliers in the United States sells two of Chun's own Lower Hutt sourdough starters in the United States, labelled as "New Zealand sourdough".

"It's amazing to think that someone in Texas can be making bread with a culture from Naenae."

Chun remains connected to the world of plants - he still has an orchard in Levin and sells rare plants on Trade Me - not least because baking 50 loaves of bread a week is not enough to make a living.

"It's a two-day process, so if I was looking at paying myself an hourly rate it just wouldn't be feasible," he says cheerfully.

"But I really enjoy it. Sourdough is not a commercial yeast so every one has its own fragrance and flavour that it imparts to the loaf. You never get two the same. It gives the bread a depth of flavour and texture that's unique. The whole thing is really rewarding."

Bread from Nev's Devil Kitchen is available from Cultured in Petone and Commonsense Organics in Lower Hutt.

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