Baked to perfection: Millers Flat celebrates the restoration of its bakehouse

The Millers Flat Bakery photo supplied
The Millers Flat Bakery photo supplied
The Millers Flat Bakery photo supplied
The Millers Flat Bakery photo supplied
The Millers Flat Bakery photo supplied
The Millers Flat Bakery photo supplied

The Millers Flat Bakehouse will have its official opening ceremony later this month, 28 years after the small Central Otago community first started planning to restore the 112-year-old building and its brick and stone oven.

The bakehouse was built in 1908 by Louis and Rosa Faigan who ran the grocery store next door.  The business later passed to Nathaniel Campbell and then to Roxburgh baker Frank Vercoe. Although tearooms continued on the premises, the bakery ceased operation in the 1950s when Mr Vercoe consolidated his entire operation in Roxburgh with new electric ovens.
In 1991 a determined group of locals headed by local historian Betty Adams set about preserving this important piece of New Zealand's heritage, negotiating a forest of legal requirements and raising a mountain of funds in the process. The community-owned bakehouse is believed to be the only working example of an early 20th century bakery in the country.
From scratch, the oven takes days to get up to temperature. With no resident baker, having it in constant use is impractical. However the bakehouse museum is open for three hours most days, staffed by a dedicated band of volunteers who bring their own produce and crafts to sell.  Original baking equipment and hand-operated home appliances are on display, sparking memories for older folk and curiosity from youngsters.
To be as true to the era as possible, the building was restored using original materials and replica timbers run off by Breen Construction, who contributed to the project by keeping a lid on their invoices when the restoration budget blew out.
A country baker's working conditions were very different 100 years ago, according Bakehouse committee member Dennis Kirkpatrick. `This is a period in time before electricity. No electric lights, no electric mixers, just candles and a fire.'  The restoration's only concession to modernity is the lighting:  it's electric, for safety reasons.
Dennis has first-hand experience of baking without electricity. Son of Jimmy Kirkpatrick, founder of the Roxburgh family business that Dennis now continues as Jimmy's Pies, Dennis worked at the bakery before and after school, and during holidays as well. `Dad used a coal-fired oven, so I learned all the ins and outs of baking the old-fashioned way,' Dennis said.
While an electric oven was versatile and heated up quickly, nothing beat the taste of bread baked in a coal-fired oven, Dennis said. Unlike today's bread which can rise in an hour with the use of additives and steam, the old bread took 12 hours to prove and he believed that was behind its lovely flavour.  When the first loaves came out of the newly restored Millers Flat oven, Dennis relished a taste he had missed for 40 years.
In the old days a 2am or 3am start was required to get an oven up to temperature before baking could begin. That, and the heavy work involved in kneading by hand, meant bakers had to be dedicated - and fit. Bread and pies need the hottest oven and went it first. Then came scones, other baking, fruit cakes and finally meringues which were left in the oven overnight.
When Dennis and his offsider Ric Hunt fire up the Millers Flat oven these days, word soon gets around - no advertising required. Locals stream in with their bread to be baked and overseas visitors on the rail trail contribute recipes from home.
When booked groups come to see the oven in action, the bakehouse becomes a working museum. `In December children on a school trip from Haast are coming. We'll do bread for them - let them have a go at kneading and show them how it's baked,' Dennis said.  Two years ago a group of 12 intermarried bakers and cake decorators celebrated a 60th wedding anniversary at the bakehouse.
The official bakehouse opening on Monday October 28 will be a gala occasion.  The festivities will start at 2pm at the Millers Flat Bakehouse, directly ahead as you come over the bridge from SH8.
Everyone is welcome to come for afternoon tea with scones from the oven. And some of that lovely bread with its crunchy crust will be for sale - a treat from days gone by.

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