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.


Librarian said...

I do hope we, through your blog, will be witnesses to the festivities! Glad the weather seems to be better now...

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Pete:
Gosh, this all seems to have been a terrific amount of hard work, although we suspect that rather a large quantity of beer was 'sidetracked'in the process!!

For us, this all sounds rather like the Boy Scout and Girl Guide camps where food always seemed black or raw or both. Still, we wish you well with your outdoor cooking....bread seems pretty safe to start with....and, surely an improvement on some ready sliced white wrapped in plastic!!!