Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Public Markets...Public Art

I love public markets. Here under the shelter of solid roofs or sturdy awning, I can find fresh products of farming and fishing.  The face-to-face banter with sellers is a tonic in contrast to the drone of supermarket shopping.  Solid spaces for these markets also give the attending public everyday access so that "stocking up" isn't necessary.  A fresh supply of food and company is available 7 days a week.

The Project for Public Spaces ( enlarges on the role of public markets.  "The power of public markets to contribute positively to a city’s image must be understood in the context of the long urban tradition in Europe. For centuries, local government established market laws and constructed special buildings and spaces that demonstrated its commitment to protect citizens from spoiled food, high prices, food shortages, and merchandise that did not meet standard weight or measure. Sales of perishable goods were carried on openly, at specified times, so that anyone passing by may judge the quality of goods and witness transactions."

Currently in Seattle, Washington, I've strolled through Pike Place Market, purchased fruit from multiple vendors and sampled the goods of many.  The willingness (perhaps necessity) of vendors to offer samples of their product both demonstrates their honesty and draws the buyer into an informal relationship (even if for a moment).

In the same vein, a large company, Vital Tea Company, has tasting 'bars' where you might sample a dozen teas in a genial obligation-free environment.  For a real food-is-art experience, there are walnut-sized tea cakes that, when covered in hot water, bloom into a garden of flowers and foliage in a clear teacup.  
I've marveled at the the company's percentage of sales to people who just casually stop in to enjoy the relaxed hospitality (unlike...forgive the Seattle sacrilege..Starbuck$). 

Open galleries and public art in parks provide a similar experience: a free and uncloistered look at a community's creative spirit.  Outdoor sculpture along walking and biking paths can be thoughtful or whimsical.
A Chihuly glass garden is under construction at the Seattle Center. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Brick Ovens without Boundaries

 Faced with a blazing fire at the start of oven warm-up, broiling, roasting, and searing are cooking options that have worldwide tradition.  Later, when the oven is at high baking temps, the foods each culture prepares are matched to the cooking environment.
Days later, a slow-roast oven can be employed to mimic, pit baking, slow ribs, or banana leaf covered dishes.

What would an international brick oven bake festival look like?

I would guess that if you gathered cooks from all over the world around a brick oven, each would have recipes
perfectly suited to this ancient appliance.
We don't immediately think "Japanese" when referencing brick ovens, but Nobu Los Angeles has this menu prepared in brick oven:

Nobu La Brick Oven Dishes
Baby Vegetables with yuzu white truffle butter

Cauliflower Jalapeno Dressing 

Edamame with crispy garlic and shichimi

Heirloom Tomato with tosazu

Mushrooms with wasabi salsa and ponzu

Hamachi Kama Miso Salt 

Vegetable Marinated Sea Bass 

Black Sea Bass with jalapeno sudachi amazu

Niman Ranch Nori Kaba Ribeye Rosemary Aioli 

18 Hour Niman Ranch Pork Belly with miso anticucho


Sunday, February 26, 2012

10,000 Visits

In the age of internet, it may be a small celebration to say that my blog has had 10K visits in a year.  Whether it is advantageous to 'go viral' or not, my original purpose for the blog was to offer information on brick oven activities and connect with people building, baking, and wanting brick ovens.
I've also brought my portable oven to many events as a demonstration model and far more than 10K people have seen it. That has been the most rewarding result of building these ovens: seeing and hearing about the events that they inspire.
So...a scrapbook here of my favorite events of the past years and a request to all my followers; please share the blog with your friends and fellow bakers and cooks.
David Neufeld
True Brick Ovens

Friday, February 17, 2012

Brick Oven Book Review

Andrea Mugnaini's The Art of WOOD-FIRED Cooking contains nearly all that one needs to launch a long and pleasurable venture into brick oven baking. A native Italian, she brought brick oven manufacture and cooking to California in the earlier days of the Brick Oven Renaissance.
The book published by details some of the finer points of learning to use your oven. The recipes have all been well-tested and the photos are delicious.

Cesare Casella and Eileen Daspin's Diary of a Tuscan Chef is a storybook cookbook, bringing the reader not only into the life of Cesare Casella and his family but through the seasons of Tuscany and the dishes prepared from the fruits of the land.  Where most cookbooks get propped up next to the kitchen work counter, this one will feel at home while you sip wine on a soft chair.

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan is the equivialent of Julia Child's classic treatise. You get it all. The chapter on focaccia, pizza, bread, and other special doughs will be of interest to brick oven bakers as it explores the regional takes on all forms of risen dough.

With all this resource, could there be anything to add?  For most readers of this blog, that would be a yes, si, ja, da, of course... a brick oven.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Perfect Brick Oven Domes

I came upon Alex Chernov's website while researching the best ways to build custom brick ovens.  His company is out of Toronto, Canada, a 'fair piece', as we say in New England, from where I live and work.
The precision with which he builds his brick domes confirmed that with the proper angles and equipment, I could cut dome bricks so that they fit perfectly on all mortar joints.  This involves a lot of cutting but results in very small mortar joints and an entirely structural unit. 
Most of the domes illustrated elsewhere (and many of the ones I've built until now) use refractory mortar as filler where large spaces around bricks need to be filled. This does not decrease the strength of the dome significantly but the result is not aesthetic perfection.  Alex's method is.
My hat's off to Alex.
Future domes will be assembled from precision-cut bricks based on a CAD design I hired a CAD technician to produce.  Sometimes a computer nerd is really handy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Keystone

Masons tend to be a fairly tough bunch, not prone to cry when a finger gets pinched or get sentimental when a photo of the Great Wall flashes on the news...BUT ask masons about keystones and you may find some sensitivity.

On any arch built from multiple pieces of masonry, the keystone is the structural block that gives it strength.  It is also the visual centerpiece of the work.  Often, masons will carefully select the keystone to showcase their personal style and just as often, the keystone is what ties modern masons to ancient ones.

Because brick ovens generally have an arch that spans the mouth, keystones become part of the individual personality of the each oven. 
the exception
individual taste

Owner-built or mason-built ovens (custom-built ovens) offer an opportunity for style and the keystone is an important place to express that style.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Brick Oven Bread vs Pizza: no contest

traditional Quebec oven
Dufferin Grove Park Bread Loaves

When I examine the motivation that drives people and communities to build  brick ovens, it tends to come to BREAD.
It's fair to say pizza is a close second but an old, if perhaps folkloric, story of the roots of pizza may frame the contest as a cooperative game:

Garden and Oven meet

Town bakers, readying the great oven for the baking of bread, got hungry. The logs in the oven were blazing, heating the dome and hearth bricks. Beside the bakers  troughs of  bread dough rose softly. Nearby (perhaps in a sack) were hunks of local cheese, maybe a pepper, or tomato. They would have had their stoppered flask of olive oil.
Pinching a bit of dough from the bread trough, they flattened the lump, crumbled some cheese on the disc, sliced on a piece of vegetable or hard sausage and slid it in the oven. Minutes later, they sated their appetites with the risen, baked, bubbling flatbread.

Reasonable enough?  Pizza can be an end in of itself.
But experienced (read 'hungry') bakers often see the pizza fire as just the beginning.  Each time I fire my oven, I prepare bread dough for loaves.  The even 500-degree oven that follows the pizza firing is perfect for bread baking and, for me, the satisfaction gotten from pulling fresh loaves from the oven is unsurpassed.  Give me any reason and I will make many more loaves than I can reasonably eat myself.
30 hours later, I'm still eating the bread (having given away the fresh loaves the day of the baking), and the oven is still warm enough to slow-cook.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Brick Oven Advocate Jutta Mason

 I know that I cannot be everywhere at once.  If I traveled to Italy last March to explore brick ovens and I went to France last October to find community ovens, I have only scratched the surface of brick oven knowledge and activity out there in the big world.

Community oven in Audrix, France

I came upon the below article/excerpt and enjoyed both this and the links it provides.  Besides passing it along, I hope that readers of this blog (wherever you are) will send this blog photos and stories of their explorations.   Baking and breaking bread has forever been a gesture of peace.


A Wood-fired Communal Oven
In A Park: Why Bother?

by Jutta Mason

An excerpt from Mason's Cooking With Fire in Public Space, which details Mason's experience with organizing, building and managing campfires and a community brick oven in Toronto's Dufferin Grove Park.

The sight of a crumbling village oven, in a documentary film about Portugal, started our bread oven idea here at Dufferin Grove Park. The film showed the village priest encouraging the people to repair their old communal oven, and then there was a short clip of some village women baking at the rebuilt oven, their faces lit up by the fire. When I described this movie scene to people at the park, their faces lit up too. Over the following weeks I was astonished at the strength of people's reaction to the oven story, as I was asked to tell it again and again. Of all the ideas ever proposed for the park, this one has a uniformly enthusiastic response. There must be an old memory (of bread baked on the hearth with fire) that people don't seem to have let go of, even after half a century or more of sliced bread in plastic bags.
"An oven is a story magnet. People rarely pass by the park oven when something is baking without stopping to talk."
Many older people still remember outdoor brick ovens from the countries they came from, Portugal or Trinidad or Italy or Guyana or France or almost anywhere. In Quebec there is a small outdoor-oven revival because it's one way to keep traditional Quebec cooking alive. But in most parts of the world, the old communal bread ovens are falling into disrepair or are already gone. At the same time, restaurants all over North America have begun to offer pizza and many other dishes cooked on the hearth of a brick oven right in the restaurant. People like it, but often times this food is expensive, because it's slow food, not fast food, prepared by the hands of cooks rather than by fabulous machines that can turn out a thousand assembly-line "food products" in under an hour.
In Italy there is a "slow food movement" with over 150,000 members. Its goal is to steer another course, an alternative course to the fabulous machines, by backing the small producer, the human-scale farmer, the small local markets, the one-of-a-kind cheese maker and so on. In a sense it's a movement to return slow food to neighbourhoods as well as to restaurants.
Wood-fired bread ovens built for communal use are certainly one way to bring slow, excellent bread back. But we didn't know anything about this movement in 1995, when we resolved to build an oven. We didn't even exactly "resolve" -- it would be more accurate to say we put out feelers to see if anything would stop an oven, and nothing did. The building inspectors said the oven was too small to come under their inspection. The park supervisor said he didn't see anything wrong with our oven plans, and then he went away on holidays. The funding people who had given us a "child nutrition grant," meant to open up new healthy food possibilities in our neighbourhood, said that fresh bread from an oven sounded nutritious to them. So we were allowed to use some of the grant to pay for the oven. A friendly and capable contractor in the neighbourhood looked at our plans and said, sure, he was busy in the week but he could get the oven built in a couple of weekends.
So with nothing to stop the oven, we went ahead and built it. Now, if you want to build an oven in your park, and want to explain to the people in charge why it's a good idea, here's what you could tell them.
Why should park staff encourage the building of an outdoor community oven?
An oven is a story magnet. People rarely pass by the park oven when something is baking without stopping to talk. Ovens like ours were used in Portugal, Italy, Poland, Trinidad, Germany, Greece, Spain, Guyana, rural Canada. Different kinds of ovens, also involving wood fire, were used almost everywhere else. Because ovens were so common and so much a centre of communal activity, many people have been told family stories about what was cooked in them, and they recognize the oven as something familiar.
At the same time, because communal ovens later became scarce, almost lost, seeing such an oven is always a shock for people. This means that the natural inhibitions of strangers about speaking to one another are overcome by the natural desire to tell what one knows about this surprising object. Such stories have to do with recollections of smell and taste and physical movement, and tend to be accompanied by large, lively gestures. This attracts other people walking by. There is a lot of enthusiastic interruption, as people pile on layer after layer of description:
"This is how my grandmother tested for temperature..."
"This is how my mother marked her loaves so she could tell them apart from her neighbours' loaves after they were finished baking....."
"This is how the plum cakes smelled when they were carried home through the streets after baking...."
"This is how we opened the oven to get out the stew at the end of the Sabbath...."
"When we were children we had to gather kindling from this certain wood..."
A public oven that gives such a strong push for strangers to share overlapping stories is a very good thing, in a city where so many people know so little about one another's stories, past or present. An oven attracts festivals and community events. This only makes sense. People want to share food on special occasions. If we had built substantial stone barbecues instead of an oven, the festivals would still have come. But an oven is more sheltered from the elements, and in winter we can bake bread and make pizza even when it snows.
"An oven attracts festivals and community events. This only makes sense. People want to share food on special occasions... A nursery school wants to do its annual fundraiser... a street festival will culminate in a pizza-potluck, a city parks tour wants to have lunch at the oven."
We don't have to put on the festivals ourselves. People call up and say:
...six folk-dancing groups get together once a year and there are too many people for a small hall -- could they come and dance outdoors and bring a potluck to augment our bread and pizza?
....A theater company has devised an open-air park performance about the mythology surrounding baking in ancient times, could they get us to bake some bread for opening night?
.....A community Hallowe'en parade needs a destination for the parade to end at -- could they end at the park around a giant bonfire, with fresh bread for the participants?
.....The local city councillor's office wants to host an all-neighbourhood lawn sale, could they put it near the oven and have some pizza available?

The smaller events come even more easily. A nursery school wants to do its annual fundraiser, a daycare wants a picnic of all the parents and kids, a street festival will culminate in a pizza-potluck at the park, a group of friends wants to bake unleavened bread before passover, a city parks tour wants to stop and have lunch at the oven. Even birthday parties, if screened, are a kind of community get-together, with familiar faces as friends from school and, often, their parents, gather around the pizza-making table.
And that's not even counting the school classes which want to make pizza at the park, as part of their play day, or part of a lesson on wheat. There are weeks in the spring when there are school outings to the Dufferin Park oven twice a day every weekday. Some of the children tell us they've never been to the park before, even if they live three blocks away. So the oven brings them into the park. They often say they'll come back with their parents, and sometimes they do.
The programs we do offer ourselves around the oven are also proof of the strong desire people have to eat together. Once or twice a week it's an open oven, when anyone can come and buy a lump of dough and some tomato sauce and cheese, bring their own toppings and make lunch. Often there are seventy or eighty parents and young children coming to make their lunch. Getting your lunch like this takes much longer than ordering a slice from the pizza place up the street. But people tell us speed is not the point. Perhaps they've come to meet their former prenatal class here, all of them now with six-month-old babies, and they're all spread out on three big blankets. Or they've just arranged to meet one friend and spend an afternoon off work in the sunshine, talking and watching the children run around the park. Or they've come on their own, new in the neighbourhood, hoping to meet some of their neighbours.
Any way you look at it, an oven brings people into a park. Build it and they will come.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Urban Wood-Fired Brick Ovens

As interest in artisan bread baking grows and awareness of the advantages of wood-fired brick ovens follows, communities are stepping up to the 'plate'.
In most communities, brick ovens are not zoned any different than a chiminea, outdoor fireplace, or outdoor grill.
Urban settings offer more opportunities for salvaging the materials needed for a durable, authentic, brick oven. Masons and bakers who are advocates of community become a resource for expertise.
Delighted but not surprised, I found this article about a community brick oven in Pittsburgh.
Follow the link at the bottom for all the details.
Fired Up: A community oven rises in Braddock
Thursday, October 02, 2008
The first community oven in the Pittsburgh area is on a parking lot directly across the street from U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson plant, the only working blast furnace remaining from Pittsburgh's steel-making days.
The oven is one more piece in the puzzle that is the re-purposing of Braddock as an artist's destination and once-again-vibrant community.
"The steel furnaces built Braddock," says Mayor John Fetterman. "It might take another kind of furnace, an oven, to help rebuild it."
Last December, Ray Werner, bread baker, community activist and godfather of the oven project, explained to Mr. Fetterman why a wood-fired community baking oven -- one that the public shares -- would be a good fit for Braddock. The mayor had an immediate reaction. "We'll do it," he said. "How much? How can I help?"
Nine months later, the oven is up and baking beside the former convent at St. Michael's on Braddock Avenue. With Edgar Thomson's billowing stacks in the background, the oven's first burn was in mid-September. "The first pizzas had a bit of char," Mr. Werner says.
"But by the end of the baking session, the crew was making really good pizza. When they get the hang of the heat and what the oven can do, bread bakers will follow."
Mr. Fetterman says, "The building of the oven is the result of three serendipitous facts. Ray proposed the idea and had the working plans for the oven. Then I met Joe Bonifate, a local stone mason from North Braddock, who was enthusiastic about building it. And because so many old, deteriorating buildings have been razed in Braddock, I have access to materials.
"The oven is made from recycled brick from houses, cinder block reclaimed from an abandoned garage and surplus stones from one of Joe's projects. If we hadn't reclaimed and recycled, everything you see would have gone into a landfill."
Every year Americans demolish some 250,000 homes and bury the debris. What if all those floors, bricks and beams were reused?
"And because we didn't have to fit the building into a schedule, costs were kept to a minimum," says Mr. Fetterman. "We built it for a song."

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