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The Big Score Bread

It all started with a home-built bread oven in the backyard…

Bread is one of those staples of life, and has been so for centuries, but over the years convenience and mass production means most of us buy our bread from the supermarket. This bread is designed to last several days and even sourdough breads have been turned into a commodity so when I find a true, hand-crafted artisan sourdough bread, bread with a distinct sour flavour, that is best eaten fresh, my heart skips a beat.


Johan van der Walle with just some of the loaves he bakes fresh each day

Enter Big Score, a sourdough bread maker that makes a limited range of artisan breads hand-crafted and baked to crusty perfection daily by Johan van der Walle.

I went see Johan at his bakery last week to find out more about him and his breadmaking journey. Having originally trained as a chef he worked in a number of restaurants in New Zealand and Melbourne before he and his wife Leah went to San Francisco for three months to house sit for friends. “I discovered bread and found my food passion.

“You can turn humble ingredients (flour, water and salt) into something really special.”

Born in Auckland he trained as a chef at the Auckland Hotel & Chefs and Training School when he was just 16. After qualifying he worked in Auckland and Ohakune where he met Nelson born Leah.

Johan told me he didn’t really know what to do as far as his cooking future was concerned so the couple “moved to Melbourne where we worked for 15 years, I worked for a number of passionate chefs but interestingly, it is the people I worked with in kitchens I learned so much from.”

At this stage Johan hadn’t discovered bread but the trip to San Francisco changed that. “I suddenly found something that intrigued and challenged me, something that really got under my skin, I found bread I wanted to make.

“The bread was from Acme Bread Company who are a large bakery supplying places like Wholefoods who had a store close to us. We bought a loaf with our usual shopping and as soon as I tasted it I knew I hadn’t had anything like it. That loaf made a huge impression on me, it was just fresh crusty bread that tasted great.”

After a few average attempts at making bread at home they moved back to Melbourne “where one of my colleagues was making bread in the restaurant I was working and I asked him to teach me. I started researching bread, searching the internet, reading lots of books and I was hooked – I just wanted to make the perfect loaf of bread.”

Johan took a job at a restaurant that had a bread oven. “I learned a lot about what I wanted to make and what I didn’t like. I kept working as their head chef but focussed on making awesome bread I wanted to make and eat. I would get to work really early and just try different things with bread before the other chefs arrived at work.”

Johan and Leah had two children (Arne who is now 12 and Bo, 9) but when they were getting close to school age they decided Melbourne wasn’t where they wanted to bring up the kids. They spent a year planning a move back to Motueka where Johan worked at Toad Hall for two years and learned more about bread from their baker (Richard). Johan and Leah also built an Allen Scott bread oven in their backyard where Johan refined his craft.

Then it was to The Appleshed as head chef for owner new Keiran Inglis for two years, “I really enjoyed both places and made lots of great contacts but the desire to make bread a business was still there.

“I was also becoming more and more dissatisfied with the restaurant business, all the waste, the staffing difficulties and so on, I wanted a business that was super simple, with a low environmental footprint, little to no waste and only a few hands on deck.

“Leah gave me the confidence to start the business, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her support and pushing me in this direction. She could see I could make a success of this if we did it right.”

Leah says “as soon as Johan began making bread and our friends, neighbours and even strangers couldn’t get enough I knew it was time to make a go of it. I knew in my soul ‘the people’ would love it too. I’m so proud of what Johan has achieved.”

When the former bakery came up for lease “we grabbed it, cashed out our Aussie super, bought an oven, a mixer and started making bread two years ago.”

Starting with just one basic sourdough loaf a seed loaf was added followed by a baguette that Johan says was really hard work to figure out. “I don’t use trays to bake in, each loaf just goes into a mould overnight and then it’s cooked on the stone in the oven. Our baguettes are hand shaped.

Traditional hand-rolled baguettes made daily at the Big Score bakery in Nelson

“I set out to make a family size loaf of bread that isn’t wrapped in plastic, nothing frozen or par-baked, no preservatives or bread improvers, just great tasting, crusty, fresh bread using New Zealand flour that we get from Farmers Mill Flour in Washdyke,

“We first started selling bread to Jarod at Mapua Fruit and Vege and Keiran at the Appleshed before I dropped into The Junction and Connings to see if they would buy from me, they both jumped at it.”

Johan says that one day a German guy (Xaver) turned up at the bakery and asked if he made a rye bread, “I said no, and he said I should. He gave me a small hand operated flour mill, we bought some rye grain and added a rye bread to the list after some experimenting. He now runs both the Motueka and Nelson market stalls for us.”

Johan gets up at 2.30am every day to bake his wonderful loaves, that means everything he sells is made fresh that day. The business has grown to the stage that Leah and the kids work in the business too, along with Jackie Kyle who he worked with at Toad Hall and has been part of Big Score for just over a year.

Johan says “the world of bread is so enormous, the variety is endless and when people said I should be making pastries and pies too, I said bread alone is enough. All I want to do is make the perfect loaf. It’s such a simple thing but so hugely variable.”

And he’s still trying make that perfect loaf, perfect for him that is, because I think Big Score breads are pretty damn fine already.

Published in The Nelson Mail 17.02.2024

I have been writing a regular wine column for The Nelson Mail newspaper since 2000.

Unfortunately the column space is not big enough to include my thoughts on all of the many wines I taste. Hopefully this blog will fix that. It also gives me somewhere to archive the many columns I write. I will also include some favourite recipes from my dearly beloved who loves cooking and of course because wine and food simply go together. I will also point you in the direction of upcoming events and websites I think are great. Enjoy, Neil

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