In 2010, my wife bought me an inspiring baking course for my 38th Birthday at the Natural Bread Company, then based at the semi-rural Manor Farm, Wantage. This real bread bakery is one of only around 5 such outlets in my home County of Oxfordshire, selling bread which only contains flour, water, yeast and salt. I will review all five of these bakeries in this blog in an article during the next year.
As it was back in 2010, the inspirational baker William Black (RIP) had to call off the January baking course due to safety
access issues after a heavy snowfall, but I managed to enroll on the February course and so began a lifetime journey into amateur artisan baking. Following the course, I inoculated a floury porridge with some Natural Bread sourdough “mother”, and within weeks had lost the culture because I had caught a terrible flu. However, months later I was baking sourdough nearly daily having caught my own wild yeast from dried fruit skin and the air, and I began inadvertently identifying from a scientist’s perspective what were the limiting factors in my baking quality and quantity. My “research” involved visiting wood-fired pizza restaurants to exhaustively sample wood-fired baked goods (ie. eat a lot of nice pizza at Pizza East – see below), and check at what temperature they were baking – which it turned out is around 320 degrees Celsius.
I had been harbouring suspicions that the quality of my loaves was held back by the oven not getting hot enough, but as we had been saving for a new house, I didn’t realise the quality disadvantage of low heat until later on. Just over a year after moving course we moved to a new house, and I noted the quality difference in my bread in an old Stoves electric fan oven using a cheap pizza stone. The slightly thermostatically challenged oven got up to 260 degrees Celsius – and it yielded more beautiful bread than the shiny steel contraption I’d installed in the old house. But the standard British built-in electric fan oven more or less gives you just enough space to bake one single country loaf at once, and if your dough spreads beyond the baking stone you are into disaster, and the fan removes the steam from the air and give you that electric bake crust that you can get at the supermarket – and I wanted to do better. I wanted to be able to cook five loaves at once, and I can hand knead any quantity of dough, so now I wanted my own wood-fired bread oven. It didn’t take long to realise I was going to do it long-hand, do it myself, probably with minimal use of power tools, with judicious use of recycled materials – and without a set of instructions. I was sufficiently self-aware to know I’d take the “high road”, no matter how steep, and had not budgetted to invest a used-car’s worth of cash in a Four Grand-Mère. I decided a need to built a brick oven of ~100cm diameter internal dimensions.
So on one hot afternoon in July 2013, my obsession with a better crust and scale led me to begin what turned out to be an epic project. My wood-fired brick oven project which nearly two years on in July 2015, which I haven’t yet completed, I’m on the “making it pretty stage”. In this retrospective diary about my experiences of building the oven, I’m going to include details of where I sauced materials, and I’m going to specify what those materials were – so you’ll end up with the barebones of a scientific protocol for a home-built oven.
The first part of my project was rather vague, and I kind of “felt my way along”, which I’m sure annoyed a long-suffering friend who is an engineer. A popped along to Oxford Wood Recycling to pick up some used lengths of lumber (19 x 100 x 1800mm), and some used 2ft wooden stakes (25 x 25 x 750mm, sawed down in length).
I sawed down my lumber to max a square frame about 7 inches tall, and 1450mm x 1450mm inside dimensions, and held it together with a lot of woodscrews, and I dropped it on the lawn to help me imagine what the bread oven base would look like and which way it would face. I’d decided to make it face out of the near corner (offset), in the picture above “staking the frame”.
Once I knew where to dig a hole for the concrete foundations, I knocked in the stakes with a wooden mallet to hold it in place, and began digging through the turf and soil,
transporting it away in a barrow. Most of this digging was done in one energetic afternoon, digging to a depth of up 8-10 inches.
What I hadn’t appreciated was that in digging 10 inches down within a less than 1.5 metre square hole, I would fill a cubic metre soil bag. I would therefore suggest you combine your foundation dig with a sleeper raised bed project – hence the helpful picture and hint alongside. Next edition – filling the hole and laying the slab foundation!