Monday, October 31, 2011

Five Reasons for an Indoor Brick Oven

Reason number 1- Frequency of use: Brick ovens will be used at least twenty times more frequently if they are in a sheltered location. This can be under a larger roof, in a three-season room, or in the main kitchen itself.
Reason number 2- Weather: Except in certain locations in the world where temperatures are generally mild and dry, a brick oven is simply more fun if you are not running through rain, snow, or high winds to tend and bake your food.
Reason number 3- Bugs: Most places in the world have bugs. Mosquitoes can make an outdoor cooking experience less than pleasant. Placing an oven in a three season room or a screened structure makes the baking experience your experience of food, not the bug's.
Reason number 4- Economics: Once we commit our financial resource to a brick oven we tend to view it in the long run in proportion to how much it pays off, that is the ratio of money spent to amount of use. So we purchase an RV if the cost will outweigh hotel expenses (an accessibility). A brick oven that becomes part of your weekly cooking experience will justify it's expense.
Reason number 5- Your cooking life: A brick oven, placed within easy use of your living space, will become a natural part of your cooking life.  The process of starting a fire, roasting food in the oven mouth as it heats, and baking for up to 30 hours after firing will become an easy rhythm. The initial fire will ad beauty to your living space while preparing the oven for cooking temperatures.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bavarian Brick Oven

Just a short post to show an oven in Bavaria visited by Beth Hayes recently. It is interesting to see the similarities and differences between ovens in various European countries. In this instance the flue for the oven is the entire workspace in front of the oven, thereby making the wall smoke-blackened. Clearly, most of the baking was done in a semi-outdoor environment, unlike the Pompeii bakeries which were inside a building.
Then there's the bread.  With customary Bavarian decorative extravagance, the loaves have been adorned with wheat and leaf motifs, which were glazed (likely with egg white), begging that age-old question (often associated with birthday cakes); which do you eat first, the decoration or the bread?
Thanks Beth for the photos.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Brick Oven Bread Baking

 loaves baked in my oven last Sunday
"Pizza" is what I often hear when people see my oven. True, many of the ovens I've built are used by caterers and chefs to make pizza, that uniquely ubiquitous American main dish that has been re-imported to countries around the world under a number of brand names.
But BREAD...that's the real reason behind this great invention that rivals the wheel as a crowning achievement for homo sapiens.
Bread is mentioned throughout history and in the Bible as the core food of human existence and also as our metaphorical spiritual food.

We break bread together in friendship. at the end of the week, in ceremony.  We cut pizza at parties...with beer.
Audrix, France
My visit to France confirmed bread's place in communities as I visited with a baker in a small country town. On a cool October morning the oven was fired, the bread dough rose, and finally the loaves were placed in the oven prior to a farmers' market at noon.

"Give us this day our daily bread"- Baran Common Oven
Returning home, I told myself that I would attempt a similar tradition in my small community, that of baking bread weekly and inviting people to join me as the loaves were finished, breaking bread together and perhaps sharing some cheese and wine (referred to as the French Trinity).

More on the results later...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Fuel For Brick Ovens

raking walnut shell coals prior to baking
Firewood, specifically hardwood, is plentiful in my region of the world. However there are many places where it is in short supply or very expensive. And although firing a wood-fired brick oven uses very little fuel for the quantity of cooking that follows the firing (for my oven, an armful of wood for 30 hours of cooking), diverse fuels are possible with equal results.

Recently in France, I saw a large community brick oven in Audrix started with wood but primarily heated with walnut shells, the byproduct of a locally abundance nut tree. The method used can be applied to any fuel source that would normally be smaller than is practical to throw into a heating brick oven.

The walnut shells are placed in a paper bag and the bag is place on the coals. Within a minute, the paper burns away and soon the super-heated walnut shell burst into flames filling the domed chamber.

grape vine and olive tree prunings for fuel in Italy
The same might work with dry hardwood chips, dowel-ends, corn cobs, or other local byproducts.

In Italy, the locals in the Amalfi coast, Umbria, and Tuscany, use prunings from grape, lemon, and olive trees.

The overall consideration is that the fuel not be resinous and be hard enough not to produce 'fly ash' which could drift both around the chamber during pizza firing and fly out of the chimney as sparks creating a fire hazard.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

French Brick Oven Design

Audrix Oven on Market Day
Baran Oven
Prior to my visit to France, and especially the Dordogne region, I visited ovens that were based on one of a few designs: early Italian (Pompeii), southern Mediterranean (stuccoed domes), southwestern native
American cob ovens, or modern rectangular ovens.
The distinctive design I found in France incorporated a relatively ornate arch over the mouth of the oven, often reinforced with wrought iron, and a deep shelf in front with a chimney overhead supported by a wooden lintel.  This approach to mixing stone and timber was echoed in many of the old farm buildings.  It seems that idiosyncrasies from town to town made each oven distinctive.

Audrix Oven being fired
Audrix Oven
iron bands in arch, Urval
Though each of these designs functions on the same principle, that is building heat in the mass by forcing the fire to curl over the roof of the oven before exiting the mouth, the French design is well suited for an interior or semi-interior installation.
The next blog will demonstrate fuel choices for brick ovens.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Let Them Eat Chestnuts

During October in France, especially in the Dordogne region, food falls out of the trees.
This detour from brick oven posts (next one will be on the active community oven in Audrix)  arrives because I have lived in New England most of my life, planting late in spring and harvesting early in fall, thus foregoing winter harvests and certain plants that can't survive the winters here.

Dordogne on the other hand, is a mild climate, diversely planted with fruit trees, grapes, nuts, and with an abundance of volunteer greens that grow and thrive throughout the cold season. The move toward local food production and use that is contrary to mega-farms and the petroleum products that support them, could benefit from some traditions established in Dordogne over the centuries.

One tradition that I appreciated while there is the semi-public access to nut trees, especially chestnuts. These native trees line the roads and the dropped nuts are free for the gathering.  I was told that chestnuts got the people through the worst famines where in combination with simple goat cheese made up a complete diet. I harvested a pile of them.

Walnuts are bit more proprietary and one must ask to harvest a neighbor's crop. In November, walnut buyers converge on the region and any person with a sack or a truckload can sell their walnuts for a bit of extra cash.

Winter greens planted just a month ago were ready for harvest too and wild greens such as nettle, mustard, and cress grew on the edges of walls and fields.

And here lies the conundrum, we plant trees and shrubs to beautify our property, whether suburban or rural.  If we intersperse fruiting trees with our plantings we might find that our yards become small farms.

Vegetable garden is behind the flowers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Urval, Dordogne, community brick oven

It appears easy to find old brick ovens in rural France. Finding one that is still in use is a bit more challenging. Urval, a tiny town in Dordogne, has preserved their 'four banal' or common oven, sited right next to the church.
Although they fire it up only during festivals, I got some good photos of it and the accompanying environment that has been well preserved over the more than two hundred years it has been in use.

Let the photos speak for themselves, though you might note that the shelves above the face of the oven and against the stone chimney were used to rise bread as that was the warmest place in cooler weather.

 Many ovens in France also used wrought iron in the mouth, likely to take the wear and tear of use.  All the ovens I found were domes, which seem to be both traditional and extremely durable.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Brick Oven above megalithic dig

The town of les Ezyies in Dordogne is known for it's Musee Prehistoric, where one can see evidence found under the cliffs of the inhabitants of 20-30 thousand years ago.
Listening to the guide describe the fire-pits and the minimal shelters of that era, I turned and looked up at the cliff and sky, the same that those humans must have seen. There above me on the scree slope of the cliff sat a brick oven.
A difference of 40 feet of elevation and 20,000 years and cooking had improved remarkably along with shelter, food, and transportation, not to say anything about clothing! After her talk, I asked about the oven.

Even though her specialty was prehistory, the guide unlocked the gate, brought a ladder out and we climbed the crumbling hillside to the mouth of the oven.
History has it that the dig she had just explained was uncovered in the 1940's because prior to that the farmers who owned the land didn't dig very far into the hillside. Apparently though, the FOUR (oven) was older than the time of the Bateau family; she said it was likely a 'peasant' oven from earlier times.
As the photos show this oven is very similar to others I have seen in Italy and elsewhere.
But..."stay tuned", as tomorrow's blog will show a working oven in the town of Urval know as a Four Banal or literally translated "Common Oven". This community oven is still in use for festivals.
Aurevoir amis

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Market Day in Perigueaux, Dordogne, France

On Wednesdays in Perigueaux, the center ville is full of fresh food market stands. As may begin to be seen in the U.S. wood-fired organic wheat bread loaves were for sale. I spoke with Philippe Serre of "Le Pan de Peyrignac" a bit before buying a kilo loaf of hearth bread (later consumed in part with brie). He invited me to join him on one of the three baking days when he fired his oven in Bergerac.

At present, I am staying at a family farm in a tiny hamlet near Le Bugue being renovated from it's original state of centuries ago. As always in Europe, I am fascinated by the layers of masonry (doors closed with new stone, doorways made into windows, brick, stone and stucco, seemingly randomly applied to construct or repair a wall.