Wood Smoke, a Touch of the Earth

Wood-fired oven

Written By

Lisa Harris

Written on

December 01 , 2008

I spent two years with my head in an oven. Not just any oven, but a wood-fired oven. Built of French clay and steel and copper, it sat on an iron plate atop a wooden platform. And it had wheels.

This 3,500-lb. oven was built to travel the roads of Vermont. It was hauled over mountains, across mowed farmers’ fields, and into the parking lots of cities and towns. Built for the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association of Vermont, it was created to introduce Vermonters to the wonderful fresh foods that are grown and produced around the state. The idea was to fire up the oven at various events and prepare pizzas and breads in it using local ingredients.

Everywhere the oven went—to sustainable energy fairs, food festivals, farmers’ markets—it drew stares, attracted people like a magnet, and sparked many questions. What is it? What is it made of? Where did it come from? How much does it weigh? How much did it cost? What is the power source? How hot does it get? How do you feed it?

Standing there dusted in flour, black soot on my arms, surrounded by freshly picked vegetables and with cheese under my fingernails, I often wondered why people kept asking me how the oven worked, not about the local foods I was cooking in it.

But once in a while, I would notice a father holding his child’s hand. The two would be gazing wide-eyed at the boxes of fresh eggplants, yellow onions, red peppers, and tomatoes. They would watch as I sprinkled those fresh, local vegetables on a hand-shaped disc of dough, then loaded the flatbread pizza onto a metal peel and slid it into the oven. The child’s eyes would grow even bigger when I pulled out a finished pie, hot and bubbling with cheese. At such times, I realized how many people are unaware of where their food comes from, what it looks like as it makes its way from farm to market to kitchen, and how it’s transformed to appear so familiar by the time they sit down to eat. Those were my fondest moments with the oven—when I saw those discoveries made right before my eyes.

More and more people are getting back in touch with earthly things, especially fresh food, the outdoors, community. And one way they are doing so is by building, cooking in, and gathering around wood-fired ovens. Building one can be as simple as taking a pile of sand, a mound of freshly dug clay, a few bricks, and some straw, inviting a group of adults (and children) over who are willing to get dirty, and adding water. Not only do you end up with a wood-fired earthen oven, you also make meaningful connections with other folks who care about fresh food, the outdoors, community.

Wood-fired ovens are very popular in Vermont, and across the country, too. Several times now I’ve had the privilege of being involved in oven-building workshops where adults took off their shoes, rolled up their sleeves, and dug into piles of sand, clay, and water with their hands and toes. Two of those workshops were held for NOFA Vermont at Wellspring Farm in Marshfield, where a strong community has been supporting farmer Mimi Arnstein and her labors for five years. Some members of that community showed up to build a large clay oven two summers ago. And just this past summer, another workshop welcomed participants from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts to learn the basics of how to build one of their own. These ovens are not difficult to make, but they do take a lot of planning in order for them to survive Vermont’s harsh winters and frost heaving.

Working with these ovens for the past few years in Vemont has provided me with some wonderful experiences. I’ve loaded and unloaded piles of sand and gravel, dug and moved mounds of heavy clay and stacks of bricks, and hauled numerous loads of firewood. It was very grounding to work with these raw earth materials, and to meet people who work with rock and sand for their livelihood. Knowing that these ovens would soon be inspiring people to prepare and share local food with their friends, families, and neighbors made all the heavy lifting and hauling even more worthwhile. In fact, the man who I hired to dig the foundation pit for one of the workshop ovens—he spent an entire day shoveling out a four-foot deep by six-feet square hole of pure clay substrate—said that what kept him going through all that work was imagining the faces of many people enjoying pizza made in the oven. That is inspiration.

In this world of prefabricated plastics, processed foods, and instant gratification, many of us seem to have lost touch with what is real. Wood-fired ovens bring us back to earthly things, give us a chance to work with our hands, and encourage us to prepare fresh, local food. And whether we are with a group of friends and family building a new oven or are gathered with neighbors around a backyard oven making fresh loaves of bread and pizza, such close encounters are vital to our well-being.

Wood-fired ovens are located all over Vermont, including the following places (call ahead to check when the oven is in operation):

American Flatbread – Waitsfield and Burlington
King Arthur Flour – Norwich
Mach’s Brick Oven Bakery and Wood Fired Pizza – Pawlet
Naga Bakehouse – Middletown Springs
NOFA Vermont – Richmond
Pizza on Earth – Charlotte
Shelburne Orchards – Shelburne
Yestermorrow Design/Build School – Warren

For more information on wood-fired ovens:

The Ultimate Wood-Fired Oven Book by Anna Carpenter
(Schiffer Publishing, 2008)

Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost Wood-Fired Mud Oven, Simple Sourdough Bread, Perfect Loaves by Kiko Denzer with Hannah Field
(Hand Print Press, 2007)

Cooking with Fire: French Family Recipes & More for Woodfire Ovensby Maurice Sabbagh Yotnegparian
(Maurice Sabbagh Yotnegparian, 2007)

The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott
(Chelsea Green, 1999)

About the Author

Lisa Harris

Lisa Harris

Lisa Harris currently lives in Huntington, where she writes, eats, and is breathing new life into her blog.

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