Thursday, January 29, 2009

A great loss

Although his passing happened literally on the other side of the world-- in Tasmania, Australia-- Alan Scott left his mark here in Western North Carolina with at least seven wood-fired brick ovens that he designed, and a few he was here to build—and this is just a count off the top of my head. Alan Scott was a pioneering oven builder and designer. He was also a baker of desem bread, a Flemish Old World, whole grain, naturally-leavened bread. I apprenticed under Alan fifteen years ago at his then home in Marin County, California. Alan was my teacher of bread, and a dear friend. But beyond my own personal experience with him, his impact on the world of artisan baking should not go unnoticed. Alan was an innovator who brought the concept of wood-fired brick ovens baking into reality in backyards and bakeries throughout the United States and beyond. He was wonderfully eccentric—his oven plans were likened to drive the type-A recipient of such designs, a little crazy. But his ovens are tried and true and unbaked loaves that finds their way to the hearth of an Alan Scott oven are blessed with a radiating heat that caramelizes the crust and provides a welcome oven-spring, assisting even a highly-hydrated artisan dough into perfect form.
Alan was born in Toorak, Australia in 1936, and raised in Melbourne with summers spent in Tasmania. After university, Alan hopped on a ship headed for Greece and spent the next couple years abroad, a good bit of that time in Denmark. It was the early 1960s. He returned to Melbourne for a bit, claiming to be “the first hippie” in Melbourne. He took off again, this time, heading for the States. Alan settled in Marin Co, California for more than thirty-five years. He raised his daughter, Lila, and son, Nicholas, in Marshall/Peteluma/Point Reyes area. Alan ran a little underground bakery out of his kitchen—kitchen table converted from dining to mixing dough with the addition of a few blocks to raise it up, and a piece of plexi-glass clamped to its surface. He baked a couple hundred loaves of desem on his weekly bake in his backyard wood-fired brick-oven that he designed and built himself. People came to bake with Alan all the time-- a range of visitors—from the backwoods hippie-type to the chef from highly acclaimed culinary circles. During my apprenticeship with Alan, he was asked to give a demonstration at the George Lucas Studios, nothing too out of the ordinary for him.
When Alan was not baking, he was traveling around the world, leading oven building workshops. Alan’s ovens can be found all over the world. The publication of The Bread Builders (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1999), co-authored by Alan and Daniel Wing fed the flames of a growing movement in artisan baking. Alan moved back to his ancestral homeland of Tasmania a few years ago to give attention to his ailing heart. Roger Jansen of Jansen Gristmills, who was inspired to build mills after meeting Alan and tasting desem, reflects, "The contribution that Alan made to our pursuits cannot be overestimated. I felt the space when I learned he had gone back to Australia." In Tasmania, although faced with congestive heart failure, Alan was still driven by his passion for real bread. In Oatlands, Tasmania, he began the process of setting up a bakery. Sadly, his ailing heart continued to persist, and on January 27th, 2009 Alan Scott passed away.
Last April, Alan called me from Tazmania and planted another seed of inspiration that we shall hopefully feel here in North Carolina. He called to tell me about the farmers he who will be growing wheat for bakeries in Tasmania that have his ovens. At the time of the call, wheat prices were soaring. His call got me thinking in terms of local wheat, and the revival of the centuries-old tradition of linking the farmer, and baker, and the miller. I knew the USDA-Agricultural Research Service had been working on hard wheat trials in North Carolina. Alan’s call pushed me to dig deeper. The result-- NCOBFP. The process has just begun, and there are many factors to consider, but the idea is in motion, and I have Alan to thank for planting the seed. Alan’s passing is a great loss, yet upon reflection, Roger Jansen aptly put it, "Alan was a great storyteller and he will now become part of our story repertoire."


  1. Amen.

    Steve Bardwell
    Wake Robin Farm Breads

  2. Very well written. You have some good juju behind you and with you I'm sure.