Monday, February 29, 2016

Venite a Pompeii

61 CE: Pompeii is a beautiful city.  "A paradise to live in or to see.  But believe it or not you won't think it's so hot, se non hai il 'do- ray -me'."

"VENITE A POMPEII" a local real estate broker shouts in Rome.  "There is an amphitheatre, a palaestra with a central natatorium or swimming pool and an aqueduct that provides water for more than 25 street fountains, at least four public baths, and a large number of private houses (domÅ«s) and businesses. The amphitheater has sophisticated design, particularly in the area of crowd control." 

"Molto importante "  Crowd control.  11,000 people lived in Pompeii on the eve of its destruction, the usual mix of rich, tradesmen, and (in a separate ghetto) serving class.

"A 'bella vista' of the 'montagna di fumare' Vesuvius."

On 5 February 62,[13] a severe earthquake did considerable damage around the bay, and particularly to Pompeii. It is believed that the earthquake would have registered between about 5 and 6 on the Richter scale.[14]
On that day in Pompeii, there were to be two sacrifices, as it was the anniversary of Augustus being named "Father of the Nation" and also a feast day to honour the guardian spirits of the city. Chaos followed the earthquake. Fires, caused by oil lamps that had fallen during the quake, added to the panic. Nearby cities of Herculaneum and Nuceria were also affected.[14]
Temples, houses, bridges, and roads were destroyed. It is believed that almost all buildings in the city of Pompeii were affected. 
In the days after the earthquake, ANARCHY (shades of post-apocalypse fiction) ruled the city, where theft and starvation plagued the survivors.  Crowd control fell off.  


Today, Pompeii on a sunny day is a lovely place to stroll through.  Not uncovered until 1599, the city's plazas and avenues feel as new as they might have been when the Romans took over the city just 160 years before its destruction.  This is just about the age of our current Los Angeles, California.  Among the favorite tourist features are the macabre plaster casts of the bodies of inhabitants in the positions of death when they were buried beneath fifteen feet of volcanic ash on August 24, 79CE,  the day the real estate bubble burst.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Hard Truth about Brick Ovens

Mason in West Virginia assisting me on a TBO oven
Building a brick dome, the traditional shape of brick ovens for thousands of years, is hard.  In comparison, a simple brick arch, like a vault, is easy.  So why do I build these domes and why don't I build vaulted arched ovens?

Taking rectangular bricks and building a dome challenges the spacial ability of the mason.  Sometime, at the beginning of my life as a mason, I discovered that not only are traditional forms strong, but they give lasting satisfaction to the builder and the viewer.

The final reason, after the strength of domes, the aesthetic of domes, and the tradition of domes, is that domed brick ovens heat more evenly.  Vaulted arches in brick ovens is an invention of the industrial age.  The flat rear wall needed to enclose a vaulted arch is well suited to the use of alternated fuels.

Ovens with corners leave parts of the oven unevenly heated, leading to complicated product management.  I grant that if you are placing rectangular bread pans in the oven, a rectangular space will accommodate more pans... but hearth loaves (boules, baguettes, and other rounded shapes) do just fine.

My portable demonstration oven is designed after the Audrix oven shown below.

Weekly baking of bread in Audrix, France in a 2 meter diameter dome oven

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What happened in Pompeii?

The year is 79 CE. Pompeiins (Pompeople? Pompopoli?) are blithely strolling the broad avenues of the city, dodging the carts and gutters on their way to one of the twenty-six bakeries for their morning bread.

The  grist mills turned slowly and muscled men and women kneaded dough in quantities not be seen anywhere else.  Not far above the city, Vesuvius sent up plumes of smoke, emulating the chimneys of the homes and bakeries.  It was morning in the Roman metropolis.

"Stolti! Copirire quei pani." the capo uomo shouted at his assistants.  Fine dust sifted down on the rising loaves and his 'Fools' hadn't covered them.  It would not be long before the number of fools in Pompeii would skyrocket, including the richest families and the poor.  They would die before they could escape.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Brick Oven FAQ #2

continuing the FAQ...

#6. Are there less costly ovens?
Yes.  I encourage anyone who doesn't have the funds to either build one of these true brick ovens or have anyone build it for them to use less expensive materials and methods.
option 1- Salvage firebrick and proceed as shown in many of these posts.
option 2- Use red brick.  Standard red brick has been used in ovens since colonial times and is the usual material in many all-clay ovens.
option 3- Build a cob oven (see post).  These usually don't have chimneys and are constructed from clay, sand, and straw.

#7. Are these ovens a luxury?
In many countries and regions, brick ovens are the most basic and original cooking devices.  There
are as many brick ovens in Italy as there are grills in the U.S.
Yet, to have one built, requires some money.  I ask people to consider that a brick oven costs as much as a decent used car but will last 100 times longer.

Brewster Academy oven with flue and makeup air ducts
#8. What building codes pertain to Brick Ovens?
I have built ovens in many states and towns.  Each has its own code requirements.  Two aspects need attention: The proximity of anything combustable and the fireproofing of the oven container.  And the height of the chimney which must both provide a good draft and move the smoke away from habitations.

Pietree oven stays hot from May to December
#9. How long does the oven stay hot?
Ovens used for pizza are usually brought up to 700F.  If pizzas are made quickly, the temperature will drop rapidly, absorbed into the masonry mass.  Or you may soak the mass by slowing the firing process (see Owner's Manual)   'Soaking' the masonry extends the cooking time up to four days without extra wood.

#10. The Questions you leave in the comment box below, which I will answer as they arrive.
I welcome questions as they point to aspects of brick oven lore that I have yet to explore.

The Brick Oven Garden

What are the sources of foods we cook in a brick oven?

As the movement toward locally sourced foods and 'slow food' grows, we can work in reverse, from what we like to cook, towards what we want to grow ourselves.

For brick oven bakers, herbs, tomatoes, mushrooms, and poultry might be among the top items in these food groups.  One might add cheese if a nearby source of raw milk is available.

The simplest products would be garden vegetables.

Around March 1, avid gardeners begin to anticipate the growing season in most climates in the northern hemisphere.  The sun is strong and, with luck, winter has released its grip on the soil.  Even in New England, a cold frame or small greenhouse allows us to start greens and harvest herbs.

This is certainly seed arrival time.

Of the vegetables most likely to make it into a May brick oven event, I'd list: new growth on perennial herbs such as thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, and oregano.   Spinach, cilantro, and newly dug parsnips grown in the previous season and left in the ground to sweeten, will be current.

Unless you live in a warm climate, it's a fair wait until the classic vegetables: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and basil are mature.  Bridging this gap requires that we look elsewhere.

By summer, for omnivores, locally caught fish, locally raised poultry, beef, and pork, and cheeses can supplement the spring vegetables.  Generally, Mediterranean cultures, especially the peasant populations, did not serve huge chunks of meat as the central dish.  By using meat as an element within the dish, buying and cooking local, organic, or naturally raised meats doesn't have to result in more expense.

TBO Chicken
TBO Kneading Conference loaves 2013
By July, a well-tended garden will have an abundance of vegetables.  The brick oven, fired up on the weekend, will still be hot enough on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to cook a variety of dishes.  The journey through the rest of the season is one long culinary festival.

P. S.  And there's always bread!

Miranda Cafe's Lobster Risotto in TBO oven @ 2014 Meet the Chefs

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Building the Brick Oven Dome

Three thousand years of brick oven use has proved that the dome is the most efficient and durable shape.  This is true of all European ovens, most Middle Eastern ovens, colonial north American ovens, and is also the shape of the cob and adobe ovens of Africa and the American southwest Native tribes.

Now that this detail is out of the way, how is this done?

I recommend that a stable base be built that allows the baker to access the oven mouth without stooping.  This usually means that the floor of the oven is from 40" to 44" from the ground.

Skipping the insulation detail at this time, see: (, the floor is laid out herringbone pattern so that the metal peel cannot catch on any minutely higher edges of the brick.  On this, the dome is built.  Many builders use a form at this point because eventually it become difficult to set bricks at extreme angles without them falling.

A form is recommended for first-time builders.  These can be made from a pile of sand, removable sections, a burnable wood form, or other accurately cut materials.  I don't use one.  If arch bricks are used to form the dome, the joints between bricks should be thin enough so that they adhere with properly mixed refractory mortar.  It's not easy though.  Accuracy of cutting the bricks is essential.
Pre-cutting the bricks speeds the process.  I have a CAD design that indicates angles.

An important aspect of dome building is the mating of a half-sphere with the arched mouth of the oven, something that needs to be fitted when the oven is built.

Two options are:  Cut the mouth arch to receive the courses of brick at that level OR cut the bricks at that level to conform to the top of the mouth arch.   Don't try to pre-guess this.  It's easier (still hard) when you get there.  By mocking up the mouth arch you can scribe the cuts necessary.

A 'Keystone' closes the top of the dome.  If properly fitted, the dome brick joints will be as tight on the outside as the inside.  If not, the next, insulating concrete shell will cover the gaps.

Whether you use a form or not, getting inside the dome will insure that any gaps are filled and any loose mortar is cleaned off.

Be sure to have someone nearby in the event that you swell after crawling in.

Many other posts on this blog contain detailed information on dome building.  Good luck.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Chef Gracie Allen

Each year, in the middle of May, I get to see how any number of chefs make great food in my large portable brick oven.
I met Chef Gracie Allen, a personal chef, aboard a friend's boat, where she prepared exquisite meals in a tiny galley.  Since then, I've seen her in the garden she grows with her man, Sheehan in southern NH.

My former smaller portable brick oven, a regular addition to the Meet the Chefs event, needed a person to appreciate it full-time.  A bit over a year ago, I gave Gracie the oven.  Since then she has cooked in it almost constantly (except when at sea).

Last year, at the Northern New England Home, Garden and Flower Show  she presented at the Meet the Chefs event.  We featured barbecued ribs from White Gate Farm., slow-cooked in my large oven.
Throughout the growing season, Gracie and Sheehan host open garden events where people see and learn about their integration of growing, preserving, and cooking food.  She will be back with me at this year's event in May.  We plan on broiling a whole salmon which we will not have caught.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Brick Oven FAQ

After over 300 posts, 130,000 blog visits, a lot of oven builds, and nine years, I will list here the ten most Frequently Asked Questions:

1. How much does it cost?
I've revised the post on Cost three times in the past few years due to both my best estimate of what a custom brick oven should cost you and in comparison to the manufactured cast-refractory ovens on the market.
It is the foremost concern for many.  In building custom 'true' brick ovens, my foremost concern is quality and function.  In comparison with manufactured brands, the pricing of my hand-built brick ovens is very competitive.  The additional cost gets you an oven that has more mass, more insulation, is better designed, AND looks like what it is meant to be, a traditional baking device of ancient origin.

2. Why doesn't my oven work?
I get emails from people who have either bought oversimplified plans or kits, have had a capable fireplace mason build an oven as if it were a fireplace, or and have built an oven themselves that isn't a functioning oven.  The fix for these is complicated and often means a tear-down and rebuild.   Occasionally, a simple draft problem is solvable.
Brick ovens aren't fireplaces.  They are completely different.  They aren't masonry heaters.  A brick oven is intended to contain heat, store it in the mass of the interior, and use it to cook food.  You can't both keep heat and give it away to the room.
The flue for a brick oven needs to exhaust the smoke perfectly.  This is easy with proper proportions (see at least ten posts on this).
Air for the fire comes from the face of the oven, or for indoor ovens, from makeup air chambers.
Over-stoking the fire is inefficient.  It takes very little wood to get to temperature.
My website: has a PDF owner's manual.

3.  How do I build one?
Anyone with care, time and a few tools can build one.  Most of my complete oven builds range from two to three weeks of time for me.  People who build their first oven should expect to take three times more time.
At least fifty posts on this blog describe in detail the process of building a brick oven, soup to nuts.  I have a CAD design for the dome that I sell but you don't necessarily need it.

4. How much wood, what other fuels?
Efficiently fired, a brick oven needs no more than a laundry basket of dry hardwood to achieve 750F.
A well insulated oven will keep the heat for three days, losing only 150F per day.
Some people have requested propane or natural gas preheat options.  A gas service provider can install the jets and safety apparatus.  However, once you learn to fire the oven with wood, it becomes no more arduous to bring the oven to temperature with wood than boiling an egg.  Other fuels will add considerable expense.

5. Where can I put the oven?
Depending on where you live, placing the oven has as much to do with your comfort as with what kind of cooking and entertaining you do.
Brick ovens are social magnets.  Give your family and friends space to watch and participate in the cooking.  In some places, bugs, snow, rain, traffic, and hungry neighbors may need to be kept from spoiling your baking experience.;postID=5860137508141460815;onPublishedMenu=posts;onClosedMenu=posts;postNum=4;src=postname
Brick ovens can be built in the kitchen space, in a three-season room, under a shelter, or on a patio.  In cold climates, an indoor oven will be used 50 times more often than an outdoor one.
If you are a nomad, or a caterer, a portable oven can follow behind your vehicle.
My work as a landscape designer and stonemason can be brought into play when designing outdoor cooking spaces.  An herb garden enhances all the food that is cooked.

Look for five more FAQ's in future posts.  Or send questions as comments on this blog.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Pompeii Revisited

I revisit Pompeii frequently without leaving my country.  This involves remembering the tradition of brick oven baking, the long, long stretch of time during which bread has been the center of food production and consumption... and symbolic of home.

It is with Pompeii, and ovens all over the Western World, in mind that I embark on new brick oven projects.  My job, as I see it, is to build the best functioning brick oven with today's materials AND infuse it with the historical depth of tradition.

In order to do this, I have resisted short-cuts in production, avoided cast refractory components, and offered an entirely custom approach to the oven and its finishing details.  This does not mean that all my ovens look ancient.  Perhaps it is a contradiction that I will incorporate even modern motifs in the exteriors (or put the oven in a horse trailer).  It means that the overall impression of the complete oven satisfies our sense of historical engagement.

Then we get to baking, searing, broiling, smoking food... followed by a feast.