Martin Prior’s first visit to Asia in 1965 lived up to expectations – until he ordered poached eggs on toast at a café near his hotel in Singapore.
The Englishman was not impressed with the soggy, watery mess that he was served.
“It was just strange that bread in this part of the world was the white fluffy stuff. Just not my idea of bread,” he recalls.
Decades later, he stumbled on an opportunity to savour the bread he craved.
In 2001, Prior, an oil and gas engineer returned to Malaysia with his wife, Mardia Nasir, to care for her sick mother.
They settled down in Kampung Kubu Gajah, in the Sungai Buloh area about 20 kilometres northwest of Kuala Lumpur. Mardia ran a small business making kuih lapis – a sweet, layered Malay dessert of rice and tapioca flour – and would stay up two to three nights trying to complete large orders in their home oven.
“It was ridiculous to make tray after tray of the kuih in that tiny oven. So, I suggested we get an industrial-sized oven,” Prior says.
After getting the oven, he started making bread to enjoy at home, buying ingredients from a nearby supply shop. Originally from Bournemouth in southern England, Prior drew upon his childhood for inspiration, when he would spend time cooking and baking with his mother and grandmother.
“My father-in-law tried my bread and passed it around some of his friends. Soon, they were asking us to make more,” says Prior, 72.
Whitebrickoven: from adversity to success
A few years later, Prior made muffins and a few loaves of bread to sell alongside Mardia’s kuih lapis at Bukit Rahman Putra, a suburb near Kampung Kubu Gajah.
“It was just a table outside the baking supply shop. Then the shop owner invited us to set up the table inside. Soon, we were helping her to run the shop,” he says.
“While the shop could not sustain its business, our baking goods were selling well. Without much of a plan, we thought we needed our own shop and maybe get a café running.”
The shop didn’t work out; Prior says now that they were in over their heads. But the setback didn’t discourage their passion for homemade and healthy baked goods, and the couple eventually moved to their current location, setting up Whitebrickoven.
They bought an empty plot of land and built a barn to house their operations. As they were baking up a storm, they started getting contracts to supply many types of bread to a string of health food outlets.
The barn was then upgraded to a house; living area faces the village road, while the small café and kitchen are in the back of the space. Prior also built a white brick oven (hence the name), which is used not only for baking but also to make pizzas.
Their business has grown through word of mouth and reputation; there’s no large signboard outside Whitebrickoven. But the appetite of expat and locals has been strong enough to lead bread lovers to their bakery in Sungai Buloh.
Prior says their visitors consist mostly of Singaporeans, Taiwanese, Japanese, Koreans, Europeans and Malaysians, who buy sourdough bread, pastries, croissants and more. Demand is such that every two days Whitebrickoven produces at least 100 loaves.
“Don’t forget about my scones,” Mardia chimes in. “Yes, the scones are her doing,” Prior adds.
Baking from scratch
One of the reasons that Whitebrickoven is so popular is that Prior makes his goods from scratch, with no additives or preservatives.
This wasn’t always the plan. But when Prior first started baking he kept getting rashes whenever he came into contact with regular flour.
Unable to find organic flour in Malaysia, he tracked down an edible wheat grain supplier in Penang. At first, he didn’t want to sell any grain to Prior because it was supposed to be sold as feed.
“Industrial wheat flour can last longer on the shelves because the manufacturing process removes the wheat germ oil from the grain. If you don’t do that, the oil will turn rancid in six to seven hours,” Prior says.
To make their own wholegrain flour, Prior and Mardia bought a small mill from India. It sits in a large glass case just outside the café and each day the couple mill what they need.
Although the mill is able to produce white flour as well, it’s too labour intensive for Prior so he relies on imported organic white flour. Over the years he’s tried brands from Australia, Finland and Turkey, but found that the quality was not always as consistent as he wanted, so he now mostly uses French organic white flour. When necessary, he combines the white flour with his own wholegrain flour milled at home.
A growing business
In the past Whitebrickoven was only open on Sundays and good would sell out by about 11 am. Three months ago though Prior and Mardia began opening Tuesday to Friday as well, from 10 am to 4 pm. Despite the longer opening hours, the bakery’s popularity is such that customers who don’t place online orders are likely to find a limited range of items left on the racks – particularly if they come later in the day.
The industrious duo also makes peanut butter, vegan kaya and organic soap, and they also rear free-range chickens.
Customers are encouraged to order sourdough pizza freshly baked from Prior’s handmade oven. The toppings are made from scratch – tomatoes, basil and other herbs are grown in a hydroponic setup.
Other items on the menu are bruschetta with pesto, tomatoes and cheese, scones, pineapple cake, croissants, and seasonal items such as German stollen and mince pies. Italian espresso is also available.
Prior says Saturday as busiest; he gets up at about 3 am to start milling, and then combines flours and measures recipes.
But the process actually starts the previous day, when he prepares the sourdough by leaving it in a retarder to ferment. This takes 18 to 20 hours. “You cannot rush it. It should be allowed to go through the process naturally,” he says.
“On the day itself, we start baking the sourdough bread at about 5 am so our customers get them as fresh as possible,” he says.
While it sounds like Whitebrickoven has a lot on its plate, Prior is not quite done yet. He is working towards getting a certification on making Neapolitan pizzas, which has its own intricate regulation and methods.
From unappetising white bread to beautifully baked handmade sourdough bread, Prior’s Southeast Asia journey has covered a lot of culinary ground. Find out more about Whitebrickoven’s goods here.