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A backyard brick oven offers a new way to cook garden veggies

And before veggies there's bread and pizzas and mussels and ...

May 14, 2009
The morning after a white-hot stoneware firing, when the kiln had cooled to 600 degrees, I slipped a few pots off the top kiln shelf and slipped loaves of my homemade bread in. The kiln opening, to which the public was invited, was always celebrated with fresh bread. Nothing a gas or electric oven produces can compare.

These many years later, the bricks of my former kiln find new life as a brick bread and pizza oven. My current work as a landscape designer and stoneworker also led me to see brick ovens as an architectural enhancement to outdoor living. A visit to Tuscany in 2005 let me see a culture that has lived with brick ovens for millennia. Households in Italy have brick ovens as commonly as we have grills.

On May 4, Jim Davis, chef at the Stonehurst Manor in North Conway, arrived at my place in Sweden, Maine, with the ingredients of a splendid meal (actually about four meals). The coals glowed within the oven's domed brick interior and the temperature was pizza-hot (700-800 degrees).

Before Jim spun the dough he'd brought into the classic round shape, we pushed the coals to one side of the oven. Then he placed an empty fry pan inside the oven. Within minutes the pan was ready, hot enough for a splash of oil, two dozen fresh mussels, lemon, fresh tomato, and one or two of Jim's special ingredients to billow steam. Back into the oven went the pan. In less than a minute, the mussels were flash-cooked in a savory liquid and we sat down for our first fabulous course.

After that perfect appetizer, we dressed the pizzas variously, with feta, olives, spinach, sausage, eggplant, mozzarella, basil, and sauce and one after the other we slid the pizzas into the oven and within three minutes the crust was puffed and golden and the roasted ingredients sank into melted cheese. We sat down together and critiqued the new oven as we ate the great pizza.

Jim brought not only great ingredients but years of experience baking in brick ovens. My oven sits beside a small pond and Jim asked if I fished.

"If you take a whole trout and wrap it inÖ" Despite the foregoing meal, my mouth began to water for a grilled fish I hadn't even caught.

In a little over an hour, we had cooked and eaten fresh food and he had shared some simple tricks that make cooking in a brick oven rewarding and fun.

If I had prepared loaves of bread for baking, the oven would have produced as many loaves as I (and even other people) might have wanted to bake. Since, thanks to Jim, I had enough pizza to keep for a few days, I chose to use the remaining ample heat in the oven for roasting a fifteen-pound turkey. Three hours later, the bird emerged crisp and brown on the outside and juicy on the inside. By 7 p.m. the oven still held enough heat to grill vegetables.

All of this for an armload of firewood and the desire to build a traditional brick oven in my yard. Prior to building, I researched the various styles of brick ovens used worldwide. I chose a "Pompeii" style Italian oven, modeled after ovens used thousands of years ago in Pompeii. An Italian website, "Forno Bravo," provided free plans.

Jim and I will be demonstrating the brick oven in front of Expo One at the Northern New England Home, Garden, and Flower Show on May 15 to 17 at the Fryeburg Fairgrounds. Jim and an assistant from Stonehurst Manor will be offering samples of brick oven pizzas on Saturday, May 16.

Although my "portable" brick oven will have a decorative brick arch opening, stucco exterior walls, and a metal roof, I will be also demonstrating the options of slate roofing, stone exteriors, and brick facades and chimney details. A brick oven alone can be a beautiful addition to a yard or house. I can already imagine lot of social opportunities for my oven: a friend's July Fourth celebration, the Labor Day picnic, and a summer of fresh pizzas, bread, and oven-roasted food in my own yard within reach of the fresh vegetables in my garden.

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