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Eric Brotchie — Dough, ray, me

Posted on February 26, 2015

Pip Hayes talks dough, bees and arrogant roosters.

Part one: kneadless to say

What do I know about Pip Hayes? Good question. I have a tiny scrap of paper in my notebook that I jotted something on after an email exchange. After that, what I know is what office people might call ‘high-level’ information; in other words, ‘not much’. Given that Hayes is going to arrive soon, I decide I should start thinking of some questions for him. After all, I’m an interviewer, and he’s probably expecting to be asked a number of predictable questions, like what it takes to bake sourdough, and what life is like when you live in a holiday town for most of the year. I sip from my beer nervously, and quickly recheck the name in my phone: Pip Hayes. ‘Hi Pip,’ I say in my head. ‘Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you a drink?’ Just play it cool, I think. It’s fine. You’ll be fine. You’ll think of good questions. Interesting ones. I open my notebook and thumb through in search of the haloed notes. I find them. There are words inside. Yes.

Perhaps some readers already know Pip. Perhaps they have been lucky enough to have spent a lazy afternoon with him, sinking beers or playing cards. All I know is that my notes describe a person who has a very different life to mine, or the average Joe. That’s a good start, I think, but my job tonight is to draw out so much more. When Pip arrives and sits down I survey a beard, a golfing cap and a nondescript yet salt-of-the-earth-type brown/green spring jacket. I’m comforted by this. I notice Pip has builders’ hands with bustling sinews that have presumably beaten a lot of dough. He’s doesn’t look like a country businessman, which I vaguely expected. He looks more like one of my mates, or an errant character from a Mark Twain story. My first impression is that he actually looks like the baker described in my notes. Unfortunately, I start by asking him what it takes to make sourdough…

Part two: A rising star

The first thing you should know about Pip is that on the subject of Pip Hayes, he is wonderfully understated. As we build into our chat about his life, I discover the wealth of Pip’s achievements is only matched by the breadth of his humility. He’s far more interested in what people think than what people have done, himself included. Pip tells me he works at the Wye River General Store on the Great Ocean Road; I later find out he is a minor partner in the affair. He says it’s only because he’s been down there since 2011 and not given up, but I suspect there’s more to it. For someone who could wax lyrical with the confidence of the self-made, instead he speaks volumes with an inclusive and life-loving attitude, a rare and comforting combination in a world surrounded by the superficial and the extravagant.

Through our initial musings I learn that a loaf of sourdough, as short-lived as it might be (Pip’s shorter-lived than most), is a kind of time capsule which represents the conditions in which it’s made. ‘The reason I love it (baking) is it’s not only about the end product… it’s also a real science with all kinds of variables,’ says Pip. ‘If you bake using traditional methods, every last detail can be important, or you might not get a loaf at all. You have to take into consideration all kinds of things, and I love the fact that every day I bake, I’ll have a product that isn’t always the same; in fact it’s impossible.’

There’s something very refreshing about a man who can speak so freely of things that are rare and unique. The way Pip deals with rare and unique products every single day, is perhaps what makes him an artist. As I slog in and out of the office each day, I ponder, the most creative thing I even get close to is choosing which type of coffee I am going to order, perhaps go crazy and get a soy cap instead of a regular. Actually, by the time you and I might do this every morning, Pip has already finished the whole creative process of fine tuning each loaf and sweet treat in his batch, in fact he’s probably free for the rest of the day. I sigh and ask what kind of variables he’s talking about, and how Pip controls what he can each morning.

‘The main thing about creating bread is the quality of the dough (flour origin and density), but you also need to think about the quality of the water and about the temperature in the room.’ These, I think, are a given, but he goes on. ‘You also need to know about the type of cultures (yeasts) you’re putting in, about barometric pressure of the environment, and about the timing you’ll have in the morning to produce the loaves you need.’ He says that in the summer down at Wye, he works all through the night to produce the massive amount of bread needed to supply the tourist hordes. ‘It’s a great time to be down there,’ he says ‘I usually finish in time to go down to the beach and watch the sun come up. I try not to miss it,’ he says. ‘We have some of the most beautiful sunrises in the world down there.’

In saying this, Pip strangely echoes the words of Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, who I recently saw speak. Hadfield too made sure he saw each of the 16 sunrises one can see every 24 hours while he commanded the International Space Station. I reflect that the life of the baker and the life of the astronaut may have more in common than one might think. Both have similar things to say about learning their trades. Hadfield said when he grew up there wasn’t even a space program in Canada, so he started out with little formal knowledge of the aerospace industry at all; all he knew is that he wanted to be an astronaut. Pip too says he has never been formally trained in bread making. He just learned from a small number of mentors and texts how to knead, punch, fold and bake. In both men I see the same drive of a truly self-made man; where a long journey within works to create something from nothing. It’s all very romantic. It leads me to blurt out my next (purely secular) question.

‘Is there a Bible for bakers?’

‘Not really,’ Pip replies. ‘You kind of pick and choose bits and pieces from here and there, what you know works well, and avoid what doesn’t.’ Pip says he’s got a fairly large stack of baking books he creates from. ‘There are a few revered texts,’ he rejoins, ‘but no Bible I know of.’ ‘I guess you should probably get started on that.’ I quip poorly. He reflects that perhaps this wouldn’t be a bad little enterprise, and ponders on his potential for teaching his craft; sharing his skills with others.

‘I do love training people who come down to Wye,’ he says. ‘They come in all ages and from all over. I’ve gotten to know the people who live down there pretty well, but there’s also backpackers and tourists who come in.’ Pip’s minor partnership of the enterprise in Wye River, I ponder, is the very definition of a moveable feast. There are perhaps people all over the world who know how to bake sourdough because of this guy sitting opposite me: That’s pretty cool.

Part 3: Of matters pertaining to culture

‘The reason I got interested in baking came from my grandmother,’ Pip says. ‘There’s a long tradition in Eastern Europe of baking, particularly rye breads and sourdoughs, and my grandmother’s donuts were an inspiration from early on.’ I have written the Polish word Pączki in my notes in anticipation of this, and it jumps off the page at me now. There is something special about being inspired by family and cultural heritage to start doing something you love. I ponder what the Scots did for my own historical reference. It turns out I will never be inspired by haggis. Following this thought, we digress to chew some fat about a charity cycling event along the Great Ocean Road. But I can’t get my mind off family, and how lonely Pip must feel when he’s not baking. Just hanging out and presumably sleeping a little bit on the business-owned property in Wye’s hinterland must be a difficult part of his life. Bit-by-bit, as if cycling our own way down the spectacular road to that place itself, I get to the burning question: exactly how has Pip kept sane in the darkness of regional Victoria since 2011?

‘I make sure I come back to Melbourne fairly regularly,’ he says. ‘I have to admit recently I’ve begun to feel slightly isolated, so it’s been good to come up and catch some of the festivals in Melbourne.’ I feel it’s not even the slightest exaggeration; even those with the calmest and most carefree of country lifestyles cannot live without the arts, creative minds, and young, free people who make Melbourne Melbourne. It’s no surprise that I find Pip to be an unassuming culture vulture in more than a baking sense, having been to MIFF in August, and the Fringe Festival in September. Again with the humility, Pip turns the interview on its head again, and seems more interested in what I’ve been up to in Melbourne recently: ‘Let me know of any good shows.’

And the rest of our conversation bleeds into the raging din, as various Melbournites flitter through the bar doors, sit down to enjoy this and that; the same coffee shop democracy that sifts through Chinese whispers as the world travels by. We talk about Nellie, Pip’s loyal chariot-pilot pooch, and about Jean-Claude; an arrogant, accidental rooster he keeps down at Wye. ‘He’s just got this really aggressive kind of attitude,’ Pip smiles, ‘he tends to scare away the wild dogs that sometimes appear down there.’ I am presently amazed to find out the name has nothing to do with the illustrious van Damme. Finally, after some digression into the world of film and television, I take myself back to my original notes. There’s one more thing I need to ask about: ‘beekeeping.’

It doesn’t surprise me that Pip keeps bees, after all, it’s the archetypal country gent’s game; always has been. He says he’s fascinated by bees, and thinks that Otway is a great place to have a go at keeping them. ‘We’re right in the middle of a whole National Park filled with gums, and my property is on the edge of the bush, so it’s the perfect spot.’ I ask how the honey tastes. ‘Well, last year all the beekeepers down there had a really bad year, because there was an early bloom that didn’t come to much,’ Pip pauses pensively. ‘It’s not a big thing for me, just a hobby really,’ but I can tell he’s itching to get that first pot of honey ready for his mates. Then he starts again: ‘When I was in Brisbane I met the guys behind Bee One Third (the rooftop honey syndicate in the city’s CBD) and they got me really interested in it.’ Pip props his cap up from his brow slightly: ‘We’ll see how we
go next year’.

And this simple phrase, which we may have all said at some time in our lives, that somehow seems like a good place to leave Pip. It sums up his resilience, and his undeniable, essential, insatiable love of experience. As our daily lives can be so inextricably linked with commercial needs, the news, with pettiness, with greed, Pip takes life as it comes; it’s actually a rare and beautiful thing.

The full moon is rising, or at least I think it’s full, and I close up my notebook, nodding to Pip that our work is done for the night; we may go our separate ways. Outside, I shake Pip’s hand and bid him bon voyage. He jumps into his car and speeds off into the night, the little vehicle ready for the long haul down to Rye. As the brake lights squash his hatchback into the nightscape, I think of the small patch of grass one hundred and fifty kilometres away, where he will step out into the cool night, playing an unending soundtrack in the background of the Southern Ocean.
The bees will be asleep in the hive, the sea will be rippling at the foreshore, and in a few hours Pip’s hands will start warming up, as he kneads through a hazy morning batch, waiting for another Spring sunrise at the end of the Earth.

Eric Brotchie studied at Leiden University.

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