by Elisabeth Wynhausen
Just after six am, four hours after he arrived to get the ovens going, baker Gus Morrison, a tall man with a slow, shy smile and a flour-dusted apron, stood at a pine benchtop weighing and shaping the traditional l‘ancienne dough that had been sitting in a tub all night. It was the morning rush at Organic Republic, my favourite bakery in Bondi.
By the time the baguettes and rolls had come out of the ovens to be stacked on trays, the heady scent of wheat berry filled the air and the queue on the other side of the counter had spilled out onto the pavement.
Organic Republic, a bakery-cafe straddling the corner of Warners and Glenayr Avenues, North Bondi, bakes bread, buns and scones so ambrosial that tasting them makes you feel better than you felt a moment before. The news has got around. By now bread from Organic Republic gets first billing on some restaurant menus and the bakery many believe to be the best in Sydney gets through two tonnes of flour each week.
Its artisanal breads include a gluten-free wholemeal, an unbleached white, a white sourdough, diverse multigrains, a whole rye sourdough and amaranth and quinoa; having long since worked my way through this list, I went to meet the man who dreamed it all up, a former industrialist from New Zealand, who crossed the Tasman and restarted his life, after a messy divorce.
“I’ve been here since 2004,” Murray Begg told me. “I kind of retired in my early 40s.” By then he had built up a big business that manufactured high-end footwear and leather goods, with a factory in Christchurch and stores dotted around New Zealand. These days instead, he often manages to look as if he’s on holiday, leaning against the Prussian-blue walls of Organic Republic , or sitting chatting with one or other of his many acquaintances, his long legs folded under a café table.
- Murray Begg behind the scenes at Organic Republic
But ask him the secret of producing breads so full-flavoured other breads pale beside them and Murray, a genial eccentric with a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper moustache, sounds like a man on a mission.
Convinced that the quality of the product depends not merely on the ingredients, but on the attitudes of the people making it, he has constructed his bakery with the idea of making the work more satisfying for his employees. They’re expected to develop their skills and use their judgement rather than being treated like extensions of the equipment they handle . The happier they are at work, he insists, the better the bread, not to mention the spelt scones and orange almond cupcakes.
Organic Republic is his second bakery. When he quit corporate life he took himself off to live in Golden Bay, a coastal town on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island he likens to Byron Bay. There he opened his first bakery and started playing around with traditional recipes while learning the craft of baking first-hand.
I happen to think that supplying people with superlative bread is not merely a necessary calling but a noble one. Different as it may be from manufacturing shoes made to last, both businesses were strongly influenced by ethical and environmental considerations Murray relates to values he inherited from his parents.
His father, from a family that had emigrated from Scotland, was a man ahead of his time with a belief in social justice he passed on to his children. Murray and his sisters were also raised with the idea they could do anything – as long as they worked hard, planned well and learned from their mistakes.
The confidence this solid grounding gave Murray would bring its own sense of obligation, to employees and customers alike. “You want to produce for your customers the very best product you can, while conforming to those ethics that matter most.”
Managing a supply chain in accordance with those ethics sets up competing demands. Products as organic as the air itself may be compromised by more food miles than a packet of airline pretzels. Murray does the best he can in an imperfect world.
He finds local growers of fruit and vegetables. He buys his stoneground organic flours from the Wholegrain Milling Company, a family-owned business in Gunnedah, in the heart of the wheatbelt in NSW, and then, being a perfectionist, somehow produces flavours so complex and intriguing that savouring a slice of Organic Republic’s amaranth and quinoa makes you wonder if you’ve ever really tasted bread before.