Jodie and Dave Pillinger were incredibly nervous when their oven was lit for the first time.
To get it hot enough to use Mrs Pillinger and her daughter then spent two nights camping beside the oven, gradually raising the temperature.
Of course, this isn't your standard gas kitchen-oven. And, lighting it was the culmination of a year’s hard work.
The Scotch Oven is at least 143 year old, uses wood for fuel, and takes up an entire wall. Mrs Pillinger thinks it could probably fit 300 loaves.
Inside the oven is rarely completely cool. When the Pillinger family went away for two weeks last year they returned to find the oven sitting at about 20 degrees, much warmer than the autumn temperatures outside.
The oven has stood at the site since the early 1900s, where it fed the Harcourt district with bread.
But it's older than that. It was originally built at Barkers Creek, at least 143 years ago.
We weren’t really sure what we were going to do with the oven other than get it going and maybe make some food for ourselves, but I just started this journey of making bread.- Jodie Pillinger
The bakery's original name "Coronation Bakery" suggests the oven was probably moved to Harcourt around the time that a king was crowned.
The business was always known as Blumes' Bakery though, after the family who owned it.
And it’s not just the oven that’s been revived. The bakery itself is springing back to life, producing bread for the first time since 1967.
The public can now buy bread direct on Saturdays and Sundays from what is Harcourt's only bakery.
In a nod to the oven’s history, the first flames were sparked by members of the Blume family.
Mr Pillinger had piled up the newspaper and sticks, put it there, and gave the two women the box of matches. It was a tense moment.
Mr and Mrs Pillinger had poured money, time and energy into the project, but there was no doubt they were complete amateurs when it came to restoring old ovens.
“You’re going: ‘please don’t go out’,” Mr Pillinger said.
“We restored the oven, but we’re not oven restorers.”
It didn’t go out. And since then it’s produced loaf after loaf of sourdough bread.
All in a year's work
The oven had been disused since 1967. Partly Mrs Pillinger believes it may have been playing up, but it possibly also succumbed to a dirty-tricks campaign from white bread producers.
“That’s what the bread companies were doing, buying these old ovens and pulling them down, or decommissioning them and pulling parts off them so they couldn’t be used,” Mrs Pillinger said.
“They were spreading rumors that they were unhygienic. They were just basically putting them out of business.”
But Harcourt’s bakery building survived, partly thanks to the family home next door. The bread company bought the business, but they couldn’t pull down the oven. So it stayed.
Despite the oven's disrepair, it drew the family to the site. Mrs Pillinger was keen on a treechange from Melbourne’s far south east, her husband not quite so much.
A big broken wood oven however, appealed. The beautiful old house on the same block of course played a part.
It was a house they could never have owned in Melbourne.
The scale of the repair project was massive. It took the Pillingers a year, with the help of a dedicated bricklayer.
The walls of the old bakery were crumbled, the building was damp, and the chimney had completely collapsed into the oven. White flakes were falling off the building from a past limewash, while the original ceiling had been covered by a later render.
“It took us a year to do the restoration. It appeared they’d had trouble with the oven prior to stopping using,” Mrs Pillinger said.
“Just a few little alterations they’d made hinted to us that they were having trouble with it.”
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The whole building has been given new life by the work they have done. But the bakery’s history still shines through, with its original fittings and fixtures set off by the careful work.
“We’ve kept things as original as we can,” Mrs Pillinger said.
As a painter and decorator, Mrs Pillinger never really expected to be baking bread for a living, even when she set out to restore the oven.
“We weren’t really sure what we were going to do with the oven other than get it going and maybe make some food for ourselves, but I just started this journey of making bread,” Mrs Pillinger said.
“And over the last year [I] have gone from making two loaves to making 80 loaves.”
It’s not quite a living yet, but the family have plans to expand the business.
Right now, Mrs Pillinger is focussing on what she can do well: bake bread. Over the past year she has dedicated herself to learning to create a sourdough loaf.
The bread is leavened with a starter mixed the night before from just flour and water.
At about 6.30am, Mrs Pillinger makes the dough, before leaving it to prove for the morning. She then shapes the bread into tins and proves it again through the afternoon, before baking it for the next day.
It may be a sourdough, but the bread doesn't taste sour. In fact, Mrs Pillinger has discovered the word “sourdough” actually refers to the leaven used to make the bread rise, describing the souring process of the mixture.
What Mrs Pillinger loves is that she can control exactly what goes into the bread.
Flour, salt and water.
It’s food Mrs Pillinger describes as “pure”. The result is one of the heaviest breads you’ll find. One and a half kilos of dough goes into each large loaf.
“I want to be able to tell you exactly what’s in whatever I make, and not have something that’s come out of a a packet,” Mrs Pillinger said.
“There’s nothing added that you don’t know what it is.”
She even knows where the fuel for the oven comes from.
Mr Pillinger has been working towards his chainsaw forest operators licence.
It’s the wood from this that the family hopes will fuel the oven. Eventually they hope the oven will be in use constantly, to make the most of the energy it uses.
Of course this would mean baking more goods, but Mrs Pillinger is not giving away her plans. Harcourt’s bread-lovers will just have to wait to find out.
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