Groundbreaking news

Kevin and I got married some five years ago. Our wedding was as low-key as a wedding can be, just us and our two oldest friends at City Hall on a Tuesday morning. Then a breakfast at the Mercer Kitchen, in Soho, and off to Arizona for five days of golf school.

When we came home – tanned, rested, and with a renewed emphasis on our short game – I found my wedding gift. There in my kitchen, wrapped up and with a giant bow on top, was a brand new Viking stove. My husband had bought it on the sly and had it installed while we were gone.

Perhaps not every woman would appreciate a stove as a wedding present, the implication being that she would spend her married life tethered to it, but I actually shed tears. I couldn’t have imagined a better gift. (What did I get him, you may ask? Not a bloody thing. It didn’t even occur to me that one’s own wedding was a gift-giving occasion. To have a husband who not only gives you a Viking stove for your wedding, but doesn’t resent it when you give him nothing at all, is a wonderful thing.)

I’ve never been big on kitchen equipment. I figure that, if you can cook, you can cook with anything. I use Costco-brand nonstick pots and pans (they’re the best bargain in cookware; try them if you’re in the market), and run-of-the-mill Henckel’s knives that should always be sharper than they are. Give me a heat source – any heat source – and I’ll make you dinner.

But give me a heat source like a Viking stove, and I’ll make you dinner with a song in my heart. It gets so hot! You can sear things properly and heat things quickly. And it goes so low! You can simmer things for hours without boiling off all the liquid. And the cast-iron burners distribute the heat so you don’t get hot spots! Zip-a-dee-doo-dah!

When we moved to the Cape, I had to leave my Viking behind, and I’m back to cooking on the same kind of crappy stove I’d been cooking on all my life. And I’m fine with that. If you can cook, you can cook with anything.

Of course I miss my Viking, but there is a compensation. Now that we have land, we can build a wood-fired oven. Outdoors. A Viking, for all its charms, can only heat up to a little over 500 degrees. With a wood-fired oven, we ought to be able to hit 700 or 800. Any bakers out there know what that means. Pizza!

We’ve been perfecting our pizza-making for a couple years now. We (and I use the term loosely, it’s mostly Kevin) use King Arthur’s commercial high-protein flour, called Sir Lancelot, and a two-stone system that works pretty well in a conventional oven. But the best pizza – with the char on the bottom, the elasticity in the crust, the cooked-through topping – requires high heat.

We started planning our oven even before we closed on the house. We were leaning toward buying a beehive-shaped insert from a company called Fogazzo, which manufactures the domes and delivers them, to be installed in a housing you build for the purpose. The model we were considering, the 850, has a 33.5-inch diameter (inside), weighs 661 pounds, and costs $2399.

We choked a little on the $2399. After all, there were so many projects on our list. The stone patio. The wood floors. The guest house. The greenhouse. The barn. We needed a boat and a truck, and we had a long equipment wish list – rototiller, chainsaw, leaf blower, tractor. (Tractor!? That one’s Kevin’s.) Did we really want to spend $2399 on an oven insert when there were so many demands on our bank account?

And then I stumbled on Build Your Own Earth Oven, by Kiko Denzer. It’s a little book, not much more than a pamphlet, but it has detailed instructions for building an oven out of dirt.

Dirt? Yes, literally. The stuff the ground is made of. Clay, sand, soil – if it gets under your fingernails, you can build with it.

At first, I was suspicious. Could that possibly work? But people have been building ovens for millennia, and they didn’t call 1-866-FOGAZZO. If it was good enough for the Sumerians, it’ s good enough for me. Besides, if it doesn’t work, we can tear it down, return it to the earth whence it came, and pick up the phone.

This week, we broke ground. The trickiest part of building an oven isn’t the oven itself; it’s the base, which has to be stable, well-insulated, and topped with a level, fire-proof deck that will be the oven’s floor. We bought two pallets of fieldstone, which will form the walls of the base. As we build it, I’ll tell you more (I know, I know, you’re on the edge of your seat).

As of now, we’re just past the digging stage. The oven starts with a hole in the ground, filled with crushed bluestone, to make sure any moisture that gets trapped in the base has a place to drain, and to prevent movement from frost heave. We roped our friends Rick and Mary Ann, who have much more experience with stone than we do, into helping us dig the hole, and then we filled it with stone and topped it with a level layer of paver base (like sand, only it stays in place better) to form the bed for the fieldstone walls.

We chose a big, flat stone with a nice clean edge to be our cornerstone. And as soon as Kevin’s back recovers from the injury he did it moving that first stone, we’ll tackle the second. I don’t know how the Sumerians did this without Advil.

8 people are having a conversation about “Groundbreaking news

  1. I’ll start planning my trip now. Nothing I like better than a crispy, wood-fired pizza! BTW, what ever became of the chicken egg experiment? The yellower the better?

  2. Here’s to stepping in where the Sumarians left off! Can’t wait to see how it goes. And if you’re ever in need of visual proof of what a great pizza oven can do, come to LA and see the oven as Pizzeria Mozza. It’s incredible.


  3. Clare — You know you’re welcome here any time! We’ll make you the best pizza east of the Mississippi.

    As for the egg tasting, I have to keep that under my hat for a bit, as I may be publishing the results elsewhere.

    Brooke — When the weather gets truly lousy here, which should be around the middle of next week, a trip to LA to visit you and see a pizza oven may be just what the doctor ordered!

  4. My guess is that they had a lot of Sumerians.

    Jamie Oliver (yeah, I know) had a show ‘Jamie at Home’ and he was constantly cooking in a very sexy outdoor brick oven and not just pizzas. He cooked/roasted/baked all kind of stuff. I’m planning an outdoor kitchen (eventually) only not like the $60K outdoor stainless steel and Carrara marble kitchens you see in the magazines. My outdoor kitchen, which is actually going to be my summer kitchen because I don’t have air conditioning and don’t plan on installing any, will be made up from one mud oven (from the your aforementioned book) and two rocket stoves set into a tile counter, which I can do myself. Completely low tech, fueled by biomass, and hot as hell. I can’t wait.

    Good luck with your oven. Try rolling the stones Egyptian-slave style on a bunch of dowels- that’s how my husband and I moved an enormous and ridiculously heavy bookcase with no injuries.

  5. Hi Tamar,

    I bought my son the clay oven book last year for his birthday but I am still waiting for him to come home and build one for me – he only has a flat in London.
    BTW The Tamar is a river near to where I live in Cornwall – it separates the counties of Devon and Cornwall- and it is often used as a name here. Do you have Cornish blood?

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