Words by Sarah Herrmann
While most people gave up on sourdough post 2020, Mary Quigley has created a bread empire, building an online community of over 150,000.
Mary Quigley refuses to get up at 2am.
She’s no regular baker. A doctor, teacher, carer, and Deutscher at heart — she loves bread, but not enough to break her sleep to tend to it.
What she will break, gladly, are the rules.
The bread is going to rise. Her loaves are not burned; they’re caramelised. And “if it tastes good, it really is good”.
Quigley baked 100 hot cross buns last Easter and didn’t sell a single one.
She gave them all away.
Then this year, she made just a few trays. Because “that’s what real life looks like sometimes,” Quigley says.
Ten loaves a bake has dropped to two, but she’s still thinking of other people: “one for me and one for someone else”.
Mary Grace Bread began in April 2020, when the sourdough fad was raging. It was Quigley’s first time baking since she was 13. She made a loaf that was “quite ugly but tasted really good”. We meet three years later to the day.
“I just remember eating it and being like, ‘Did I make this? Like, how? How does it taste like real bread?’” Quigley recalls, her face lit with a grin.
She was “leaving loaves in letterboxes” from the start, and the reaction it garners remains the most rewarding part of the process.
“I love making bread for other people, in a way, more than for myself,” Quigley says.
“It’s something you can give that gives back to you in multiple ways. You give it away, and people give you joy by being happy that you’ve given it to them, and you also made yourself some food that tastes really good, and your family’s happy.”
She adds: “Bread is something you can give to people, and they pretty much always want it”. And so, Quigley offers what she’s created with her heart and hands freely and without charge.
It’s made in the home she shares with her husband as well as Benny the Devon rex (hers) and Sammy the cocker spaniel (his). The pets are her sous-chefs: Sammy bounds in at the sound of a knife on the chopping board and mellow Benny has his own stool in their bright but, ironically, narrow-as-anything kitchen.
For a space that’s the selling point of a rental for Quigley, “the oven sucks”. Luckily, the zone adjacent to the living area is known as The Bread Room. It’s complete with two Rofco stoves, banneton baskets, a locally-crafted workbench, and a huge brown-paper bag of flour. Plus, she couldn’t resist the house’s window that looks out to the mature lemon and bottlebrush trees in the garden. Plants can fix anything, Quigley thinks.
Her go-with-the-flow nature means she’ll even bake on holiday.
“You know when you’re at an Airbnb and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, they have nothing’,” she laughs. “But just trying to make it work and kind of experimenting … at home, I always have the scales and I have this pot and that pot and the dough whisk.”
Quigley’s not flamboyant either. Her favourite thing to make (and eat) isn’t buttery croissants or olive rolls nor sumptuous chocolate cake.
“Maybe this is a bit boring, but my favourite loaf is just the simple basic loaf. Nothing added to it. Just like say 80 per cent white with just a little bit of wholemeal or a little bit of rye. Sourdough, always sourdough.”
“I will never ever get sick of eating just like a really nice, fluffy, fresh, plain loaf of bread. It’s the best.”
“What was the moment you realised sourdough was something more for you than the pandemic fad it was for a lot of people?” I ask.
Quigley tips her chin towards the ceiling and smiles. She emits a childlike liberty and yet the wisdom of someone beyond her years. Her true age is a secret. “I like the mystery,” she says. “It makes me maybe more relatable to more people.”
Well, Quigley became “fixated” on learning all the things there are to learn about bread, dismantling the “unintuitive” ways of sourdough… and she’s not finished.
“Every time you bake a loaf of bread, it’s always different. And it’s always a little reflection of the day you’ve baked it on. You forgot something; you got busy; you had to go out. And that will change the way your loaf looks, and it’s not always a bad thing.”
Quigley’s organic, rustic and freeing approach to bread — “putting everything in and that being enough” — is a hallmark of her instruction.
“If you give a lot of effort to something, it will pay off and it will be good,” she says. “But I think a lot of the time we’re like, ‘No, it wasn’t good enough’.
“Trying to find a way to appreciate things when they’re not exactly how you want them … if I couldn’t do that, I would never have kept making bread.”
It’s about letting go of control, which is in stark but comforting contrast to many sourdough bakers online who are “such perfectionists”.
“Why are these people getting up in the middle of the night? Or doing all these things that are so inconvenient? Don’t they have other stuff to do, but they still want to make bread?”
With her fit-your-life and everything-will-be-ok attitude, Quigley’s been accused of “leading people astray” and disrespecting the trade’s traditions, but she says: “That’s not what I’m saying! You can do it if you want to; you just don’t have to”.
She shrugs, at ease, “People seem to be making pretty good bread!”
Quigley’s put her discoveries into three books, one of which she wrote at the same time as her PhD thesis about German studies.
A decade of tutoring English as a second language has also helped Quigley teach bread in an articulate and relevant style. “Dr Bread”, she could call herself, Quigley laughs.
Academia and bread combined again for Quigley when she returned to Berlin last year with her new skill in tow.
“I lived in Germany for seven years, so it was a home for me.”
Studying there throughout her various degrees, the only thing Quigley taught Germans to bake was pavlova. But she loved their bread and wanted to make it in Australia.
She tried a bread machine, thought sourdough was too hard, but finally attempted it (as we know) during COVID-19.
“I was like, ‘I’ve. Made. The. German. Bread. Yes!” she remembers.
Sourdough is a reminder of the city Quigley loves — and describes as a mysterious version of edgy Melbourne where, during summer, “you walk down the street and you can really feel the energy of people being happy” — whenever she bakes it.
But Quigley doesn’t have the time she did when she started sourdough three years ago. Though her title means she’s often mistaken for a medical doctor, in a sad irony she really has quit everything (for now) to care for her ill father.
As a child, Quigley says, “Dad would always give me bread” and it’s been her mission to make a loaf he likes more than Helga’s.
“I haven’t given up. I’m still determined. But he’s had radiotherapy and he’s lost all his tastebuds so I have to wait until he can taste again.”
Quigley married her husband in a last-minute ceremony on Christmas Eve 2022, so her father could witness his only child’s wedding; but, she says, “now things are looking better than that”.
Bread and her community have been her shoulder: “You’re just doing something with your hands and you’re just thinking about bread — which is very neutral — and it’s sort of meditative”.
Quigley hopes, one day, she’ll open her own bakery. Inspired by a fusion of brid in Piccadilly and SOFI in Berlin, she thinks. She’s aware of the intensity of making sourdough by hand on a large scale and “will never complain again about paying $10 for a loaf”.
But the biggest turn-off — for which we can’t very well blame her — is getting up at 2am.