Matt's Food Blog

Wood Fired Pizza Oven

I’ve recently popped a page up about our spit roast lamb adventures a few years ago on an island in Fermanagh; this gave us a taste for how great the place is as a venue for such an event. So when it came to planning Benjamin’s pre-wedding celebrations in 2011 it didn’t take long to settle on the idea of a return trip to the Baron’s island retreat. Our ever generous host (the Baron) agreed and we set to planning. Clearly we needed a new challenge as regards the main dinner on the Saturday night. I’d been dying to have go at making a pizza oven – and we thought that having a wood fired oven on the island would be a valuable addition to it’s luxurious facilities. This is the story of the build and it’s first use.

As well as trawling the web for hints and advice, I used two main guides in planning the oven. The first, and certainly foremost, was the River Cottage ‘Bread’ Handbook, which has a chapter on making a wood-fired pizza oven. The book really has all you need for this – as well as lots of sound advice on bread making – including how to start and maintain your own sour dough starter – highly recommended. I also bought an ebook guide from this site; the book costs £3.99 so is cheaper than the River Cottage book – and certainly contains the necessary info (quite similar really) – but is without the additional recipes (it does have a pizza recipe). I was happy to have both but if you’re happy to spend the few extra quid the River Cottage book is really great and is all you need.

The oven needs built in stages as I’ll describe. We spent two weekends preparing it initially, then went up on the Monday before the weekend of the stag to complete it – so I suppose three weekends would be about right. On the first weekend we built the base and the first layer of the oven. The oven is built from clay, sand and wood chipping. The island has beautiful quality clay so we dug that from the earth. We had to bring over the sand and wood chip, as well as brick for the floor of the oven, and some timber and paving stones for the base.

The Base

 We first chose a flat site, not too close to the (wooden) lodge where we sleep, and far enough away from the shore as the water level in the lake can get quite high and cause floods. We then levelled the ground and laid four large paving stones. We then built a frame with some 6X2 timber (planning to have a floor for the oven of 1.5X1.5m, and about 1m high). This was filled with rocks, rubble and some old cylinder heads we found, as well as sand. The whole idea of the oven is to create a massive volume of material that will hold heat well around the food – which will then continue to radiate heat long after the fire is no longer either lit or being fed – hence filling the base with rocks etc.

When we managed to fill the base up to just over one brick’s height from the lip, we levelled the inside with sand, and laid a herring boned layer of bricks – to serve as the floor of the oven.

Building the First Layer

This is where the fun begins. The oven is built in three stages: first build a dome of sand which is a former for the oven wall to be built around initially (we followed the RC book on dimensions for this) – and then cover the dome with wet newspaper. The newspaper makes it easier for the sand to be scraped out once the first layer of the wall is built – without removing the wall itself. Then we made our building material. This involves quite a lot of (literal) legwork. Using a ratio of 2 parts sand to 1 part clay, we stomped and stamped our way to a fairly good clay brick base.

Now we were ready to build! We formed bits of our clay mixture into ‘bricks’, and started layering them, kind of igloo style around the sand dome we’d built – aiming for a thickness of around 7cms (guided as ever by Daniel Stevens of the River Cottage Bread Book).

Once we’d completed this layer, it was time to carve out the door, and scoop out the sand dome. We’d worked hard that day and it was long past nightfall at this stage – it was a moment of truth as we didn’t know if our work had created a stable enough wall to survive once its supporting sand was removed:

So with baited breaths we made our doorway and I scooped, badger style.. And it held: delighted. We then started the process of drying the first layer out, by lighting the first fire.

 Here’s how it looked the next day:

This was the first weekend’s work, we packed up, covered the oven with a tarp, and left the island, to return a few weeks later to get the second layer and the doorway built.

Onto the Next Level…

The second layer is a clay mixture cut with wood chips – to aid insulation; at the same time a sand former is built to support the building of a brick archway for the entrance to the oven – and a chimney is formed between the archway and the main body of the oven.

On the first day of this weekend we built the archway and cut a hole for the chimney – the picture above shows this stage – with a fire lit to aid the continuing drying process.

We used the rest of the weekend to add the wood chip, clay and sand layer.

And lastly…

On the Monday before the stag, we headed up to complete the oven, all that remained to do was to make up more of the clay mix (the same as used for the first layer), and complete the dome of the oven. After that it was just a matter of lighting as many fires as we could – to try and dry it out for the arrival of 25 hungry lads.

The oven looked great.

As the drying process continued we couldn’t help but notice the ENORMOUS cracks developing, though all was well as these were easily shored up with some left over clay mixture.

Preparing for Arrival

Preparing for having that many people on the island takes quite a lot of logistics, so whilst the oven drying continued we got to work setting up a camp kitchen, sheltered area, and several other key bits of prep.

As the lodge had been built some 100 years previously by the Baron’s great grandfather – who made his fortune building some of the first public cinemas in Ireland – we though it fitting to have another impromptu outdoor cinema – the screen, ready to go is pictured above (the movie of choice? Deliverance was the perfect choice for an isolated bunch of lads, stuck on an island…).

Making the Pizzas

I wanted the pizzas to be the best they could be (and as authentic as possible – for an island in Fermanagh), and so did plenty of research. Of significance was the pizza base, and for these I took guidance from Heston Blumenthal’s Perfection book. Which called for caputo flour – a 25Kg bag of which was delivered to my work. On the Saturday whilst the rest of the party took our little tenders for a trip in search of a pub, I prepped thirty something pizza bases – which proved nicely in the Naan Island sun.

Meanwhile, the Baron tended the oven, getting it as hot as possible for several hours ensures the base and walls have enough heat to continue to cook our pizzas over the hour or two it took for us all to be fed. I made a simple tomato sauce and had brought loads of toppings, mostly classics like pepperoni, ham and mushrooms, anchovies, rocket and pancetta. It was a great site to see all the comrades flattening out their pizzas and choosing toppings, and a moment of some pride for all of us who’d been involved when the peel slipped in the first pizza, which cooked to perfection in under 40 seconds.

Once everyone had had theirs, time for the cook to have a go, my choice was pancetta, onions, parmesan, and an egg, topped with rocket on the way out – and it was delicious.

More than just a Pizza Oven

Once most folk had headed off the next day, only a few stalwarts remained – it was a nice finish to roast a couple of legs of lamb as a last supper.

Since then we haven’t got as much use out of the oven as we’d hoped as we just weren’t down that much last year, but we recently used it to roast some pheasants, and are looking forward to getting down some more this year – I’m hoping to try bread in it soon.

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