A Taranaki couple threw in their high-flying careers to bring people together through the joys of good baking.
Tucked down an alleyway off New Plymouth’s main street, just a stone’s throw from the famous Len Lye Centre, you’ll find Billow Bakery in its new home on the ground floor of Quarter Bank, a new development made from containers from Christchurch’s Re:Start Mall.
It’s hard to believe that owners Rosie Sargisson and Jeff Fong started selling their first loaves, initially at local markets, just over two years ago. The pair, who met studying at Auckland University, began their careers as chemical engineers working for Fonterra. After a brief stint in Auckland, career aspirations saw them relocate to Singapore. While the move looked good on paper, this time in the pair’s life prompted them to reflect on what it meant to be a cog in the machine that is a huge multinational company and the impact this was having on their lives.
Running enthusiasts, they instead sought meaning from their travels, running trails and eating their way through Asia. After restructuring made both of them redundant, they jumped at the opportunity to cross continents and spend 10 months in Europe, not knowing exactly where this journey might take them. The contrast between living life in fast-paced Singapore and running trails through the countryside was immense and became the catalyst for the change they sought in their working lives.
Working in a big city like Singapore made them feel anonymous. Running trails through tiny European towns brought everything into perspective. Not only did they break bread with the people whom they met on a daily basis, they also shared stories and connected with them in ways they found difficult when living in a big city. Thus their love of sourdough bread was born. And as they ran they began to imagine a different life for themselves, one which freed them from them from ‘the man’, one which anchored them to a community, one which gave them the opportunity to be creative and make their own decisions and stand back and see how people would receive them.
Sourdough gave their journey a whole new focus. They lived and breathed it as their running carried them across Europe. They noted differences in how the bread was not only baked from one country to the next, but also in how it was presented and consumed. In Norway, once you had purchased a loaf of bread you’d slice it, butter it and cover it with jam before setting off on your merry way. In France, it appeared that purchasing the daily bread was the man’s job, if the queues of men who lined up every morning to buy baguettes were anything to go by.
But the one constant, no matter where you were, was the deep connection between the people who were baking the bread and those buying it. The exchange went deeper than merely selling and buying bread, it created communities, it connected people and it brought meaning to their lives. It was this understanding that led the couple to the decision to come home and start their own bakery.
Before returning to New Zealand, the pair enrolled at The Sourdough School in the UK and studied under Vanessa Kimbell, specialist sourdough baker and regular BBC radio contributor. They’d hardly baked before the course, but Kimbell taught them that their science background would provide them with a solid foundation as they began their sourdough journey. She also taught them the importance of nutrition, of using whole grains and, most importantly, of trusting their inner voices to make bread that is true to them, not merely a copy of the perfect Instagram loaf.
As I sat at the communal table at Billow Bakery, fighting for the last pieces of the almond croissant I shared with my two-year-old daughter, I reflected on the sense of community that Sargisson and Fong have worked so hard to create. Customers come and go. Some, regulars since the pair sold their first loaves of bread at local markets, have become part of their lives and share with them stories of family and work. Others, new to the bakery and to the intricacies of sourdough bread, come in, curious about what’s on offer.
Their bread is exceptional, more so given their journey into baking is only in its infancy. Deep, dark, crunchy crusts give way to chewy interiors with a sweet, sour tang. And they don’t stop at just bread either. A small but perfectly considered menu changes daily to suit the ingredients they have on hand, sourced either from Fong’s mum’s garden or local producers. There were four items on the menu the day I met with them – kimchi and aged cheddar toasties and super crunchy peanut butter on fruit sourdough, to name a couple.
In a wee glass cabinet on the counter were almond croissants, palmiers and “the slab”. Their pastries are expertly crafted, beautifully buttery and perfectly crunchy with a subtle sour note, while the slab is a wonderful example of the way the pair cook with intelligent, thoughtful restraint. A generous slab of chewy sourdough doused with olive oil is topped with quality ingredients (think leek, potato and feta, or pumpkin, black sesame and oregano) and baked to perfection. A fantastic lunch on the go.
Billow Bakery is a jewel in the Taranaki food scene run by a dynamic, driven duo who are living their dream. If you haven’t already paid them a visit, then I say get down there and do so. Let them educate and nourish you as you become a part of their growing community.
Read more from the “Why I love” series here