Thursday, 24 May 2012

Successful baking from Mud and Enthusiasm

So, last Saturday, I could contain myself no longer and I finally decided to fire up my oven. I called my friend Steve, with whom I had constructed it the week before and like two ridiculously excited schoolboys, at 6 o'clock, we lit it. I had started the dough, with strong durum flour, at breakfast time, put it in the fridge for a few hours, given it a good slapping-about mid afternoon and then left it to prove for a few more hours.
Well, a few hours later, the oven was getting hot to the touch and there was considerable amount of heat coming out of the front of it. So we made a pizza and swept the embers to either side of the base of the fire. Placing the pizza dough on the paddle, or "peel" as I believe it is called, the first flatbread was plonked unceremoniously inside.
Well, it wasn't an immediate success. It fell into the ashes and the edges were a bit gritty. But the principle had been proven. We had baked our first bread in a home-made clay pizza oven made from clay from my flower beds!
So we made up a proper pizza and rearranged the ashes a bit more. This time, I blocked up the door with a bit of plywood. The results were better, although the shape rather reminiscent of the Isle of Wight. But it cooked, and we ate it and it was lovely!
The next attempt went better. the oven was warming up now and the outside too hot to touch. The technique to get the dough off the peel left something to be desired and an accidental folded-up calzoni was produced, which now tasted something like we had hoped.
Many hands appeared, to grab a slice, and enthusiasm was building along with the heat. we were getting the hang of it now.
Well, by now it was getting late in the evening and the oven was fair singing with heat. We had one ball of dough left, sufficient for one large final pizza. On to this one went bacon, mushrooms, chorizo and olives. Five hours after lighting, the oven was perfect. And we had run out of dough. And beer. Luckily by then, i was on to the blackberry wine, which now has a lovely fizz, so I had it with creme de Mur, and this was gorgeous. But that's another story.

This pizza was the best I had ever tasted. Our deep satisfaction from our endeavours - the idea, the construction, the toil, the lighting of the fire, the cooking - all converged upon this one glorious moment of shared consumption.

Much was learned that night about how (not) to use a clay pizza oven. It seems the way to do it is to light a fire a good four hours earlier than you need to use it and to get the base and structure really hot before attempting to cook anything in it.
Then, when there is a layer of glowing embers a good 5cm deep over the whole base for a significant time, remove enough to make space for the food, and sweep the remainder to the sides. These then need to be kept on fire and flaming with small, thin, long pieces of kindling. After that, you have a wonderful hot space at perhaps upward of 400C in which to cook (very quickly). In here, pizza, bacon, lamb kebabs or even small loaves of bread can be cooked. More experiments will continue. I shall keep you abreast of developments, but for now, I am retiring to the patio with a glass of lemon wine to sit and look at my oven and to pretend it has a fire in it.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Everything is better outdoors, even cooking

I did say I would describe the process of building my recent project. I have quickly written down here how we threw the thing together. It's not particularly comprehensive and better descriptions of how to build clay ovens are available elsewhere on the web. But this is what I did.

My garden contains about six inches of soil under which is a seam of thick, impenetrable clay. I always considered this to be a bit of a disadvantage where gardening is concerned, but after a recent Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall program on telly, a friend of mine, who is really into his bread making, expressed an interest in building one and before you know it, there was beer and a plan. I had been feeling a bit frustrated and generally thwarted in my recovery and still not allowed to drive since my haemorrage. So it was good to be finally doing something constructive.
Hence, one rainy day, I dug a big hole in my garden and extracted some clay. It was the right kind, as you can tell by making a blob of it and dropping it from shoulder height. If it splats and remains intact, it will work. If the blob fragments, what you have is mud, not clay.
Then after the strenuous task of gathering all the materials from the allotment for the plinth (I used an H shape of breeze blocks and four heavy duty slabs with one 2 x 2 foot slab as the base, overlapping the inner corners of the other four) we made a former from sand in the required shape of the inside of the oven and covered it with wet newspaper.
I used two 3 gallon potfuls of clay to an equivalent amount of builders sand (a pound a bag from the B&Q). The sand was laid over the clay and then stomped for half an hour or so to mix it up, turning the corners of the tarp every now and again to flip the mix over.

Beer was added to us as we performed our merry dance. Bath Ales Gem is an excellent oven-making beer which I can thoroughly recommend. No product placement, I just like it.
Then, the clay/sand mix was made into “bricks” which were really just fist sized blobs, and these were laid around and over the former to cover it up to a depth of about 2 to 3 inches. I did use a strip of chicken wire to reinforce the structure. Whether or not this was a good idea, I cannot yet say but I couldn’t think of a reason not to.
Eventually, we had a kind of clay igloo about three feet across and 18 inches tall. At this point, we felt most pleased with ourselves, mainly as we had only really decided to get started at about three o’clock and it was now nine and it was two pints and one clay-igloo later.
It didn’t look like rain, so we left it drying out and my friends went home, whilst I went to chip clay/sand mixture off my hands and out of my hair in the shower.
Next morning, it seemed to be still there and hadn’t fallen down, so I cut a door in it. Wisdom maintains that for the fire to draw properly (for there is no chimney), the door must be exactly 63% of the height of the chamber within. Well, i am know for my inaccuracy so we cut it by eye and oddly, it seems to be just a bit over 60%. i will let you know how the fire burns with this approximated doorway. It is wide enough to accept a 12″ pizza tray and that is all I care about frankly.
After the door was cut out, I left it a few hours and then scooped out the sand former. Now we had something that looked like what was supposed to. I felt most chuffed, if a little anxious about the cracks that were beginning to develop
Thinking about it, cracks are bound to happen. This is clay we are dealing with after all, and as any architect or housebuyer knows, clay dries out and stuff cracks as a result. But, my research on the web  seems to indicate these cracks are nothing to worry about so I stuffed them with some left-over clay/sand mix and all seems to be well so far. If they open again, I shall stuff em again. Simple as that.
So ,now, i am just waiting for it to dry out properly so i can light a fire in it. This feeds two of my primeval desires: fire and food. If it doesn’t crumble into a pile of fragments, then some flatbreads will be baked therein and success will be declared. Mark I clay oven will be declared fit for purpose and festivities will ensue.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

My Clay Oven

Yesterday (and today) I and a friend of mine (who I think is hoping to learn from my mistakes prior to building his own) made a clay pizza oven in my garden from the clay under the flower beds. I hope it doesn't crack as it dries out. I can't write more as I have some things still to do to it and it is a rare sunny day, but here is how it looks so far:
After a few days, if it is dry enough, I shall scrape out the sand inside and see if it stands up. But I think It's due to rain again for another forty days and forty nights so I might not get my way.

A full account of the amusing process of construction will follow in due course.

Friday, 11 May 2012

New Tenants in my Beehouse

I have been sitting in the rare sunshine in the garden watching the busy life of insects. I am disproportionately pleased that my bee houses have attracted several visitors who are fighting over residence. Four of the cells are now occupied to my knowledge.
 The bees are, I think, red mason bees. They crawl into the holes, lay an egg, female eggs first, and then fly back and forth building up a mass of pollen for the grubs to eat. Then they seal the cell with mud and lay another egg. The males hatch first and await the emergence of the females.
 I didn't know if it would work or if my attempts at conservation would be largely ignored but to my delight, no sooner were the bee houses out last summer than creatures were investigating. I also had heard the size of the holes was quite important so I did a variety of sizes. The smaller ones seem to be occupied by what I surmise to be Harebell wasps who seal the holes with a silken thread made of what seems to be chewed-up wood.
It might only be a small thing: Drilling some holes in some offcuts of wood, tacking on a small roof and hanging them up in the garden, but I confess, it has caused me significant pleasure watching nature adopt my handiwork.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Corvine Capers

Being at home a lot of late, I have been amazed by how many bird-strikes we have on the windows. We had two on Tuesday morning alone and the bangs were loud enough that from upstairs, I feared it was a bottle of my elderflower wine exploding and had to go and check my "cellar" for shards of glass and spilt liquid.

But now, there on the window, next to the transfer of a kestrel which I affixed in a vain attempt to prevent such mishaps, was the outline of a bird, a pigeon to be precise, beak agape and wings outstretched like the imprint of a surprised angel, arrest in flight by this invisible, unyielding barrier. I tried to take a picture of it but it is remarkably difficult to photograph an imprint on glass when there is a garden for the camera to focus on in the background. Perhaps someone with a knowledge of photography can kindly explain how I set the camera up to do this.
Pigeon splat on the kitchen window.

The pigeons, are, I hasten to add, robust enough to survive these impacts and don't even have the intelligence to look embarrassed by the indignity. They are constant attendees at the buffet of dropped sunflower seeds discarded by the goldfinches and bullfinches on the bird feeder. It costs quite a lot to keep this topped up but it has been a lovely comfort to watch the birds during my recovery.
Goldfinches: Too beautiful, I feel, to be native to England.
Except the pigeons which, come Autumn, will almost certainly be culled and made into a pie by my son who detests them with a passion for their greed and lack of grace when taking off, due to their bloated bellies but rather likes the taste of pigeon breast. We may as well recoup at least some of our investment in bird seed and they do look rather plump and tasty.

So, as I sat there with my cup of tea and slice of fruit cake for my elevenses, a commotion in the garden caught my attention and I wish I had had my camera on hand to capture it.
There are crows nesting out in the tops of the alders next to the river out of the front of the house. These crows are rather aggressive and will dive-bomb walkers with small dogs. I confess, the sight of a pekinese or Yorkshire terrier crawling along on its belly in terror of the assault from above is utterly hilarious to behold.

But these crows also have a wicked side. They seem to take great delight in waiting in the maple trees out the back, or upon television aerials, until the pigeons are feeding on the lawn, and then swooping down and driving them off and into obstacles such as the fence or my windows.

Without my resorting to undue anthropomorphism, it seems to me that they then retire to a nearby roof, seemingly to cackle and laugh amongst themselves at their sport. They truly do seem to have a mischievous and slightly cruel sense of humour at the expense of the stupid pigeons.

My research seems to indicate that crows have far larger brains than is necessary for creatures of that size and this appears to make them exhibit some quite sophisticated behaviours (such as tool making, always assumed to be a measure of intelligence and largely unique to humans and the occasional chimpanzee).
Indeed, a colleague was recounting to me over lunch earlier this year how during a snowy period, he observed a crow sliding down a snowdrift over and over again, an action which could not possibly have been the result of any desire except that for fun and entrtainment.

I often wondered if animals did things just for fun. Ok, we ave all observed dogs chasing about for the sheer joy of it and cats having a "funny five minutes" around the furniture at dusk. But crows really do seem to have a laugh. I rather admire them for their attitude. And oh! What was that! Not another one, surely?! Let me go and check the windows.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Today: The Devil makes work for Idle Fingers

Today, i was going to build a clay oven in the garden. there is a hole four feet deep where I extracted the building material and I suppose I ought to fill it in before someone falls into it.
You could lose a small child in there. And I know some candidates. I really want to build a clay oven to bake my bread, which I have been very busy doing lately.
Baking bread is sequential and I find it restful. A clay oven in my tiny garden would take up a significant proportion of space but I am sure it would be worth it. I saw Hugh Fearnley-W making one on telly and it fired my imagination.
But, today, it looks like it might rain and I need to buy some sand to mix with the clay and seeing as I still am not allowed to drive, I decided it will have to wait. I have some enthusiastic friends who are fellow bakers and who are anxious to help so perhaps I will recruit them for the stomping and mixing part later in the weekend. I promise there will be pictures.
So, since I can't get on with my construction projects and the clouds look ominous, I decided to get out my banjo for the first time in a year or so. Sometimes, you just have to make a noise. This is me. Not my best playing but I am very rusty after a hiatus of about ten years. I used to busk in Cardiff dressed as a hillbilly. It was good training for presentations. Once you have dealt with tramps trying to steal your money-hat and well-dressed fellows inviting you, with no hint of a smile, back to their flats to "play with my banjo!" you can deal with pretty much anything.

Alas, the kids came along, the banjo went in the loft and I became a respectable member of society, father-of-two and wage-slave. I forgot my wild youth, put aside frivolous passtimes and settled down to a domestic bluegrass-free existence.
But my ears still prick up when I hear the strains of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on the telly on some advert or other.

I shall end with a popular joke from my bluegrass days:
Q: What is the difference between a banjo and a trampoline.
A: You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline.