September 02, 2016

Curious, Mysterious, Marvellous, Electrical: The Dough

And this is how it works when crossing a border doesn't feel like a crime:

You leave school at eighteen and go two months without a job.

Your uncle knows a bakery owner in your hometown. Your mother is great in the kitchen - her caldo verde is the best ever, friends go to her for ingredients - and working at the bakery is more her dream than yours, but you take the job.



The owner simply says: "Do everything I tell you."

It's the summer of 2012. You go six hard months learning the ropes. You've no culinary qualifications but you're a quick study. It's fun; learning all the techniques piques your curiosity.

One day the boss is sick, so you turn up early as always and do the best you can by memory, copying the things you've seen him make.

The pastries in the counter that day might not have looked as good as his, but everyone tells you they taste just fine.

Then you take over baking full-time. You're nervous but the opportunity is irresistible.

For three years you bake for your hometown. At Christmas, you make Bolo Rei for households all over, working from the morning of the 23rd right through to Christmas Eve.

Then Australia beckons. You and your girlfriend come to Brisbane to study English, but any language is learned outside the classroom as well as in.

You watch a lot of films to hone your words. In the movies, they never say "I have" like the textbooks, they say "I've got". And sometimes you feel you'll never understand when English speakers say "do" and "did", or why.

You get work as a kitchen hand and there's an even more obscure language to be learned: Eggs going down, eggs going up. On the pass. You never heard that at the movies.

Another chef leaves and once again you move up the food chain. You learn more in two weeks than you had in all the months leading up to it. As a baker, you could prepare the day before, do most of your work before opening the shop. In a restaurant, everything is done in the moment: the stress and excitement is relentless.

You meet a fellow countryman who has been doing accounts for the mines. There is a business opportunity: pastries from your homeland.

You find a kitchen at Wandering Cooks you can use in the night and you work your way up to a market stall at Brisbane Square, Wednesdays in the heart of the city, plus suburban stints on the weekends.

You start work an hour before midnight, mixing custard and readying the pastry. You've taught your partner to help out with the basic tasks. So much of baking is about the preparation.

You try to have a routine, get up as early as you can Tuesday morning, exercise, do your chores, then sleep for five hours in the early evening - but the truth is sometimes you just don't sleep. The hard part is when your girlfriend stays on the sofa and you have to slope off to an early bed.

You and your business partner work hard to find the right recipes. Australians go wild for traditional custard tarts but some of the other pastries - some of the ones you even prefer - are still too unfamiliar.

You pick the brains of your girlfriend's sister, a nutritionist, and your own sister, a nurse, for healthy food options. You make cheeky Aussie riffs on traditional baking, like a bacon-and-egg pastel. Neighbours and colleagues and the people in adjoining kitchens become guinea pigs as you calibrate for an Antipodean palate.

Even the climate has an impact: butter softens fast in the subtropical summer, but the dough is affected by humidity. You fuss over ingredients to make sure they meet the standards you'd expect back home.

You keep the buckets of custard in a cold store ten metres down the corridor and ferry them across to the kitchen. Each batch takes four or five hours - you miss the oven back home which took just two. You Skype with your mother across the timezones. She keeps you company when the building is quiet and the doors bang in the night breeze.

Around four o'clock in the morning, your partner arrives with the van. Sometimes if you finish early and get the kitchen clean, you can snatch a ten minute snooze on the sofa at Wandering Cooks.

Baking is easy; set-up for the markets is hard. After hours in the kitchen, you drive across the bridge to Brisbane Square. There's a well-established routine there: large, jovial men banter loudly, swear, laugh, get the vans in and out as swiftly as possible. Some of them use batons like airport groundcrew to guide the vehicles rolling between the stalls.

You pop up a marquee as quick as you can. The music of Manu Chao drifts across from the Brazilians next door. You laugh with the neighbours.

Sometimes talk here turns to fish instead of cakes. Australians think they have the best seafood in the world - but they don't know the riches of the Atlantic. It's a matter of national pride to enlighten them.

Meanwhile, the market manager is playing Pokemon in between barking out orders to the stallholders.

Your partner goes to him. "I can finish putting this up myself, but it's easier with two. He can go home to sleep if you don't mind helping."

The manager stops hunting Pokemon. “Sure."

The marquee goes up: DISCOVER PORTUGAL. Lisbon to Brisbane.

You take the van away. It's pushing six a.m. Time for bed. Eighteen thousand kilometres from home. Australia is good to you

Find out more about Brisbane's Caffe Lisboa via their Instagram account.
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