One of my strongest memories from my life in Athens is the early morning smell of freshly-baked bread taking over our senses when returning home from nights out with my best friend, Alexa. We would stop the car and ask the local bakery for some hot bread and fresh milk − beg, rather − as most of the time the shop wasn’t open yet. We would devour it all, to the last crumb, while picking apart our entire existence, and fall asleep like babies. We used to do that as children and it had stayed with us − our Saturday night ritual.
Not a day in Melbourne went by without me missing that smell wafting out of the corner bakery in the am. It wasn’t until a Sunday morning less than a year ago that the exact same smell brought back those memories. I wasn’t in Petralona, my then neighbourhood, but in Oakleigh. Following the aroma of freshly-baked bread and pastry I found myself at the front of a newly-opened, traditional Greek fourno. Despina Genimaki, the owner, hadn’t even put up a sign, yet people were lining up. I lined up too.
It was that same feeling, that same nostalgia, that made Despina start her own business, five years after she followed her Greek Australian husband to Melbourne to escape the crisis. The first years in Australia she took care of her two young children, practicing many traditional Greek recipes. Used to waking up and grabbing a Thessaloniki bagel (koulouri) and a Milko (chocolate milk) first thing in the morning, she started thinking about opening up a Greek-style bakery.
“I could have margarita (daisy) bread rolls, trigona panoramatos, filo cheese pies, the original spanakopita and bougatsa,” she says, describing how the idea formulated in her head.
“What’s always been missing − apart from our favourite people of course − from our everyday life was the smell of freshly-baked Greek bread in the morning and traditional, mouth-watering flavours to make us feel at home. Why not do it ourselves?”
Living in the heart of Melbourne’s Greek community, the former graphic designer and accountant realised she was not the only one craving the same things. There was a gap in the market and Oakleigh, where people come from all over Melbourne to try the food and shop at the deli-markets, seemed like the perfect location.
Her instinct proved her right. Greek Bakery turns its oven on at 12.30 am for preparation which includes making the yeast and several kinds of filo dough and baking delicious pastry. At 6.00 am sharp the shop opens its doors and sells authentic Greek delicacies non-stop until six in the afternoon.
“We are open seven days a week,” she explains, “and every single day we make sure we sell the freshest products. From day one I made it clear that I wanted to create a place that people will know has constantly been improving and offers the best quality food.
“My motto is: ‘If we wouldn’t eat it, why should the customer have it?’ Not only do we make everything from scratch in-house, but if it’s not the best product we can sell it won’t make it over the counter. Simple as that!”
Despina’s bakery is also known for its confections and cakes, usually made with an abundance of honey, fruits and cream. Meanwhile, ordering ahead guarantees that you will have your favourite Greek Bakery treat for your special occasion or function, as the kitchen is open to any order within the spectrum of Hellenic cuisine. Even though demand is high, as they cater to Dandenong, Doncaster, Bentleigh, Richmond and Camberwell as well as Oakleigh, the guys at Greek Bakery will do their best to recreate the Greek recipe you’re after.
“My shop is made up of people who love the idea; people who love what they do. You can taste the love in our products!”
And this is what has made the bakery so popular outside the Greek community, with loyal customers willing to drive from all parts of the city in order to get their hands on her goodies.
“Yes, indeed demand is so high, we even take phone orders from people who wish to ‘reserve’ a Thessaloniki bagel, fresh melomakarona or kourambiedes,” she says.
Speaking of melomakarona and kourambiedes, Despina and her team are already preparing a full-on Christmas menu with staple Greek sweets the likes of diples and vasilopita, and many more traditional recipes which are hard to find anywhere else, so make sure you pay them a visit.
Greek Bakery is located at 53A Portman St, Oakleigh, Victoria. For more information, call (03) 9042 3272.