Perfect pizza

CHEF JAMIE Oliver, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, concrete sewer pipes, and fresh horse manure — what binds them? Wood-fired pizza ovens.

As global a plat du jour as the burger, most of us are pizza fans: purists go for slimmed-down Naples originals. But we’ve broadened our palates and bowdlerised the basics: some put curry sauce on top, others ham and pineapple — truly, there’s no accounting for tastes.

If you’re Italian, Momma makes the best pizza, but for everyone else it’s open competition as to how you cook it. Hot ovens are the key, for the best bases and melded toppings. Top of the heap is the wood-fired oven for hand-made pizza.

Chef Jamie Oliver has taken them to his heart (see www.jamieoliver.com/wood-fired-ovens). Since his TV series, Jamie at Home, he has multiplied British sales of costly wood-fired oven imports, even buying a slice of the Italian company that exports them, literally putting his money where his mouth is.

Oliver says there’s something almost medieval about these traditional ovens, “you are more connected to it.”

And that’s before he even tries to build one of the fiendish things from down-home materials such as sub-soil/clay, sand, some bricks and water. Horse-manure and sewer-pipe material variations are solely for those on a low-budget DIY mission.

Pizza ovens fetishism is celebrity tabloid-fodder. Apart from Jamie, Gwyneth Paltrow goes into foodie-heaven ecstasies over wood-fired pizza oven in her cook books. And when Madonna and Guy Ritchie separated they almost came to blows over who got custody of their oven — a classic case of ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the marriage.’

Not having the budget of the aforementioned celebs to hand, this pizza-fiend Irish Examiner writer sought a cheaper alternative — as in dirt cheap. Down-and-dirty pizza ovens — ones that you build yourself out of mud and found materials, hands-on, kneads must.

Barbecuing is a competitive male cliché, hunter-gatherer comes home to the broil. Building your own wood-fired oven from scratch, straw and stones? Kudos, man, outstanding in your own field.

Standing out in a field is where our clay oven-making class started, digging for dirt. We mud-oven initiates were eight men of a certain age bracket ((30 to 55, being generous), like a knot of council workers peering into a hole in the ground.

Working in traditional clay/earth/cob-building methods, and integrating low-cost or free materials plus some scrounged ones, it is possible to build a wood-fired oven for a few euro, says patient teacher, German-born Hendrik Lepel, who earns his daily crust from jobs as diverse as tree surgery, permaculture, garden care, hiring wood-chippers — and from building wood-fired clay ovens (see his website www.bakehus.com).

He’s done a slick clay oven commission for Dragon’s Den foodie and businessman, Bobby Kerr, among other clients, done display ovens at Bloom and Mallow Garden Festivals, and is currently building a large clay oven for a start-up bakery business for 700 artisan bread loaves a day. Hendrik also finds time, between jobs on weekends, to teach people the art of building their own common-or-garden ovens — thus our motley crew, learning that sub-soil is a plentiful building material with thousands of years of pedigree (it’s how bricks are made) and then being sent to work testing, pounding, sieving, and mixing. Muddy, but not too macho.

Master the basics of building with clay by starting with a small clay oven, and you could do a whole house the same way — sort of domes and gardens. In England, whole houses are built with similar materials, called cob building, and in the US it’s called adobe. Here? We’re muckers.

Machinery was kept to a minimum — this two-day, hands-on weekend class (€150, including lunch and, at its end, all the pizza you could eat) was all about back-to-basics.

Now — nerdy confession here, and on foot of urgings at home from the matriarch — I’d previously looked up internet recipes for low-cost clay oven-building, and found it all a bit earthy, mystic and vaguely distancing. Hendrik’s approach was pretty much in parallel with age-old, traditional methods for our hands-on course (he recommends the book Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer, Hand Print Press) but he uses other materials for commercial commissions.

Being in a gang, with a guide, is sociable, reassuring, informative — and productive. A few days before we arrived, Hendrik had built the wide, circular base, using a plywood shaping form, faced in stone, with a hollow centre core to store and dry the timber needed for cooking (ash and hardwoods are best). Me? I’m following his advice to get a 90cm un-used circular sewer pipe as a core, then facing it in stone.

Class review: We built the oven floor in fire bricks, shaped a sand mound, layered it in wet newspaper to separate it from the next stage, which was the oven mud mix of sand and clay, next surrounded in it 4” of clay-slip soaked straw as an insulating layer, and finished it all in a mix of sand, fresh, hand-squeezed horse shit (really, the grass fibres contained in it bind the mix), water and ruddy-red potter’s clay for a smart-looking render.

Easy?

In hindsight, yes, but plenty of graft and mixing too, plus a few tricks that probably go back as far as the pyramids. You can’t use a cement mixer for clay, you grind/mix it into the sand with your feet or heels. For ages. Best idea is to get a gang of friends to help, with the promise of pizza aplenty when done.

Our hands-on group included a mechanic, an engineer, a journalist, a landscape designer, a computer guy and a businessman, and although our course group was solely male, women are often participants, says Hendrik, who says that about 40% of course participants go on to make their own ovens.

Most challenging for him was the fact one of his pizza-oven pupils was a genuine Italian, Giansilvio Andreoni from Florence, now 16 years living in Kinsale.

Giansilvio’s verdict on our maiden mud oven’s first pizza out of the brick arch? “Very impressed, just like in Italy, tastes like an original, the base is perfect and crispy, there’s no sogginess,” he said. Momma would approve.

* For details on the clay oven building course in Cork this coming weekend, email kirdnehl@hotmail.com.

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