Artisan baker’s perfect mix of passion and process

Image: Damien Nikora
From a young age Andrew Fearnside, owner/baker at Wild Wheat Specialty Breads, had a dream to be a chef, dropping out of school to work in restaurants and completing a cooking qualification at AUT. However, while in London, Fearnside unexpectedly found his passion to be in bread.

In Le Pont de la Tour, next to Tower Bridge, Fearnside had the opportunity to work in the highly regarded bakery and he never looked back.

It was the mid 90s when Fearnside returned to New Zealand, and by 1999 he was putting his newfound skills to use in a factory in East Tamaki.

Though originally baking for wholesale, Wild Wheat Specialty Breads created its own retail stores, starting in Mt Eden in 2004 before expanding into Howick and Belmont.

As demand grew, so too did the factory and production moved to Pakuranga where a team of 30 bakers work around the clock to supply bread to cafes, restaurants and retail stores, including Wild Wheat’s own.


Image: Artisan knife maker Peter Lorimer with Fearnside (Photo by Damien Nikora)

Although qualified, Fearnside trains each of the bakers according to his way of doing things.

“I can teach someone how to mix water and flour in a bowl - that’s easy,” but Fearnside says he focuses on teaching the bakers how to “feel”.

He holds true to the old school practices of “extended fermentation” to produce the best flavours, despite the method’s growing unpopularity as other bakers “cut corners”.

During the 48 hours it takes to make a loaf of Wild Wheat sourdough, the bakers are taught to “feel the dough” as Fearnside believes it’s all about “understanding that bread dough is a living thing and feeling what it’s doing”.

An example of this is appreciating how the environment affects the baking process.

Fearnside says different conditions on different days can alter the bread and variables, like temperature, are considered when baking. How Wild Wheat bakes its bread during a hot, humid summer is “different to the how they will make it in winter”.

It is this way of “feeling” that makes Wild Wheat’s baking a craft, which Fearnside is continuing to perfect.

He says the internet provides him with inspiration and ideas, both successful and unsuccessful.

“You wouldn’t believe how much I’ve thrown away.”

But it’s not only the bakers receiving an education about bread, Fearnside says customers are too.

At a time when gluten-free diets are on the rise, and many see cutting carbs as a healthy option, Fearnside says it’s “nice to be in the mix” to educate people that “carbs aren’t necessarily the biggest evil”.

He compares eating Wild Wheat sourdough to eating stew, saying the longer it’s cooked for, the easier it is to eat and the better you feel afterwards.

The dough gets six to eight hours to develop yeasts and flavour in bulk before being divided and shaped and put in the fridge for a further 24 hours. In there, the flavour continues to develop as well as the texture. During this time, the starches and sugars break down giving the sourdough around half the G. I. of a yeast bread.

Though lengthy, the process leaves no room for additives or preservatives and Fearnside says this makes the “sours” easy to digest, good for you and will “leave you feeling fuller for longer”.

Each month Wild Wheat have a special bread which is promoted alongside its ingredients, such as quinoa and chia seeds, and Fearnside says this is a great way to teach customers the nutritional benefits of bread.

Despite the growing trend of health foods, white breads remain the most popular of the specialty bread selection. While they are the least healthy of breads, Fearnside says Kiwi’s have always had an appetite for white bread, particularly children, making it bread the whole family can enjoy - and enjoy they do.

Wild Wheat Specialty Breads have been Metro Magazine’s “best bread” since 2004, and was a runner up for the award last year.

But it’s not only bread-winning accolades for the specialty store. It’s hot cross buns came out on top in the North Island in 2004, 2005 and 2010 while the bakery as a whole was Metro Magazine’s “best bakery” in 2011.

Fearnside is enjoying seeing sourdough and ciabatta breads, which were once considered what “foodies ate”, becoming a “mainstream” food. A motivation, no doubt, for Wild Wheat to open more retail stores in the future.