Having dabbled with hot and cold smoking, curing ham, rearing chickens (I think the chickens would prefer to see themselves as permanent fixtures, rather than a mere dalliance however), baking bread and all the other damn fine and wholesome things we’ve tried our hands at, Jamie and I decided it was time to build ourselves a goddamn pizza oven.
We love Pizza. When I was pregnant, we would go on a weekly basis to Mario’s Pizzeria in East Oxford. It would be our treat (certainly the much-welcomed house red was mine). Then we had Molly and moved to the country. No more nights out, no more pizzeria. So, we decided to build a pizza oven in our back garden.
This was probably the most arduous task that we set ourselves. It made us totally obsess over stone, mortar and also changed the way we see the landscape. We’ve become total scavengers, always on the look-out for a nice bit of clay, stone, rubble or anything that might be useful in a build. It broke our backs and hands and occasionally minds, but not our bank thanks to our tireless quest for scavenged materials. Finally after six months of seemingly Sisyphean labour, we finished. And the results were (now that we’re not lifting tonne after tonne of stone) totally worth it.
I say we, but actually, in reality it was Jamie who was doing all the back-breaking work. I like to think that he was the architect and manual labourer and I was the skilled-labourer. Work on The Plinth was mostly undertaken at weekends whilst Molly napped. We occasionally worked in the evenings, but mostly we preferred to sit back and have a Plinth Beer and admire our handiwork.
What I found to be required was great patience. Also faith. We’d never built anything before, and had no knowledge of mortar, or concrete, or bricklaying or anything. The hardest thing was knowing what the guides deemed to be the right consistency when it comes to mortar and the clay and sand mix, much like baking it’s impossible to know what the guides are going on about. You’ve just got to trust you’re doing the right thing and get on with it. All too often we’d err on the side of caution and end up with a material that was hard to work with and doubled the time taken. Of course we could have just built a plinth out of concrete blocks, or built the oven on the ground. But it wouldn’t have looked so good, nor apparently have retained the heat so well. One of the most annoying aspects of the build was that at each crucial stage, we always, without fail, seemed to run out of the material that we needed to finish it. This meant more scavenging, and more lifting. As for the clay, we got most of it from a house a few miles away that was having an extension built, and they were digging down through the clay layer to form the foundations. We (Jamie) also got some from the woods near our house when we ran out of the original tonnage. It’s as easy as the guides say it is to find, just dig.
If anyone does want to build one of these things, I’d highly recommend it. But it’s hard work. The pizza has been awesome, and we can’t wait to experiment more with breads and roasts when Spring comes around again. It’s basically so hot you can’t get your hand anywhere near it. Awesome.
I’m not going to go into too much detail, as that in itself would be arduous. I’ve listed the component parts, but you’re basically building a plinth for an oven to sit on. The oven is made of sand and clay, there are three layers, each being roughly 7cm wide each, the inner and outer layer are a mixture of clay and sand with the middle, insulation layer being a mixture of clay slip and woodshavings.
Dig foundation for plinth
Fill foundation with rubble
Level off with sand
Place paving slabs to create level surface
Build plinth (it sounds so easy)
Fill with rubble
Level with sand (thanks to Demonhead the guinea pig)
Construct oven floor (herring-bone pattern thanks to Jamie’s handiwork with bricks and a chisel)
The Inner Layer
Build sand former dome and cover with wet newspaper
Puddle clay and sand (this was exhausting, and best left up to Jamie)
Build inner layer out of ‘muck bricks’ (clay / sand mixture)
‘Smoosh’ bricks together
Cut out archway and remove sand former
Light fire! And again! And again! (Ignore cracks on inside)
Make sand former archway
Build brick archway and smoosh muck bricks between archway and dome
The Insulation Layer
Mix clay slip and woodshavings and mould into bricks
Build as with inner layer
Light more fires!
The Outer Layer (would never end)
Make hundreds of muck bricks and build
Eat some goddamn pizza