Associated ArticlesPatio Trophy: Stoke That Backyard Bakery
New York Times
by Deborah Baldwin
December 23, 2004
INVITE Daniel Wing to dinner and you won't get flowers or a $12 bottle of merlot. He prefers to present a crusty, homemade boule, baked in his homemade, wood-fired backyard oven. With ingredients costing only a dollar, he notes, it will not only be delicious but a bargain, too, though of course between the kneading and the fire tending, "you kiss a day goodbye."
A day is nothing for bread obsessives like Dr. Wing, a 56-year-old physiatrist in Corinth, Vt. He keeps his two-ton oven on wheels so he can hook it to his pickup and sail up to social gatherings, an evangelist for sourdough and blue smoke.
Not long ago amateur bakers were mad for linen-lined proofing baskets. Then the most fanatical, smitten by brick ovens they saw while traveling in Italy and France, decided in classic American can-do, must-have fashion that they wanted one, too. "People carry with them a memory of great meals and of great bread they've had in their life, and they aren't happy until they can buy it or bake it," Dr. Wing said. "They have to have it."
For this bedazzled bunch, Dr. Wing and Alan Scott, a professional oven builder in Petaluma, Calif., wrote The Bread Builders (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999), a meticulous disquisition on bricklaying and yeast cultivation. And while no one tracks the number of ovens popping up across the land, sales of the book have gradually risen to 25,000, the publisher says, an indication of gathering steam.
Handmade wood-fired ovens have meanwhile moved, as Dr. Wing put it, from the offbeat projects of "fringe-y early adopters" to "lifestyle accessories" for more mainstream home chefs. Fat-bellied, smoke-belching ovens are sprouting in rainy Oregon, icy upstate New York, even a wind-swept lot in the ghost town of Virginia City, Mont. A community of enthusiasts has also sprung up at Web sites like Yahoo's brick-oven chat group, where the talk is of "hydrating" dough and what the cognescenti call "oven spring."
Enthusiasts maintain that everything, including fruit galettes and slow-cooked roasts, tastes better when baked in brick scented with wood smoke — especially pizza. But the path to blistered crust and smoky mozzarella is fraught. Some skeptics are predicting that backyard ovens will go the way of other food fads.
Consider, for example, the tricky art of mixing mortar and laying brick, lining an oven with authentic Italian refractory tile, cladding it with attractive cut stone and perhaps landscaping it in the Tuscan fashion. Once erected, the ovens are exposed to the elements, sending some owners back to the workshop for protective overhangs. Next come the accouterments: professional point-and-shoot temperature sensors; artisan rakes for the embers; cool-looking "peels," or shovels, to slip the bread in and out of the 700-degree heat.
And then there is the matter of creating a place for those amazed guests to sit.
Not surprisingly some projects take on a life of their own. Brian Knittel, a software engineer in Albany, Calif., thought he could build an oven in his narrow sideyard in a few days. It took two and a half years.
Still, he says he has no regrets. His pizza has been such a hit with friends that he has crammed tables and chairs and potted plants around his oven and strung lights overhead. "It's such a nice little cozy space," Mr. Knittel said. "I consider it another room."
Tenold and Karen Peterson, who live near Junction City, Ore., wedged a 15-foot-tall oven into a hillside. Then they built a staircase up one side and placed chairs and a table on top, the better to keep guests' feet warm. It rains a lot in Oregon, so "a canopy is in the plans," Mr. Peterson said.
It's not clear that these patio appliances raise property values. But Todd Koons, the founder of the produce company Epic Roots, said a Tuscan-style oven sealed the deal on the house he bought in Mill Valley, Calif., last summer. A busy man, he fires up his oven before he takes off for his fields, returning hours later to stoke the flames with fruitwood from the farmers' market. "I love the companionship of having a fire going and people standing around talking about it," he said. "Everyone should have a little garden and a little wood-fired oven."
That's Kiko Denzer's philosophy, too. His "Build Your Own Earth Oven" (Hand Print Press, 2000) offers a simple eight-step oven recipe involving clay, sand and straw. Mr. Denzer, a sculptor in Blodgett, Ore., says that it is possible to throw together one of his bulbous, low-sweat ovens — perhaps in the shape of an animal or bird — in a day (www.handprintpress.com). Another option for the mortar-phobic is a modular oven kit; a company called Maine Wood Heat has details at www.mainewoodheat.com.
For eager novice builders, the King Arthur Flour Company, a destination for the baking obsessed in Norwich, Vt., offers three-day teach-ins led by Mr. Denzer and by Dr. Wing (www.kingarthurflour.com). The classes have waiting lists, warns Susan Miller, the coordinator of King Arthur's Baking Education Center.
Organized groups often turn to Alan Scott, who describes himself as a big believer in communal efforts. To build an oven for an individual homeowner looking for the latest patio trophy, his fee is $5,000 to $7,000 (www.ovencrafters.net). But he charges about $1,500 to supervise a group building a community oven.
In September Mr. Scott came to the aid of tiny Virginia City, where two newcomers, Jon M. Scott, a blacksmith, and his wife, Rikki A. Scott, a tinsmith, envision a rustic outdoor oven as a tourist draw. Over three days — braving snow flurries — a dozen student volunteers (each paying $150 toward costs) erected an oven six feet wide and nearly seven feet deep.
But not so fast. It takes a month for the mortar to cure. And then that naked cooker needs finishing touches.
Last week, with winter setting in, Jon Scott said, "We're busy cladding it with local stone, and there will be recycled brick to enclose the oven itself, with a thick layer of local volcanic pumice."
He acknowledged that he and his wife must deal with the hard part come spring: learning how to use it.
Skeptics predict that backyard ovens will one day be as neglected as yesteryear's pasta machines. Unfortunately two tons of brick and concrete may be hard to sell on eBay.
Christopher Kimball, the editor of the food magazine Cook's Illustrated, calls open-air baking "ridiculous," adding that he makes excellent bread with a food processor and a regular indoor oven. But he may be missing the point. For those who see nirvana in replicating ancient peasant foods with all the requisite tools of the trade, there's no stopping at a simple Cuisinart.
Susan Miller sees the oven craze as part of a larger roll-up-your-sleeves trend. For many "it's a goal to bake your own bread before you die," she said, and more and more people are "wanting to do things the right way."
The truly dedicated, anyway.