Joe has a problem, he is Mediterranean... and lurking deep within those Mediterranean roots, emerged the inevitable Mediterranean yearning, that wells up within the psyche of every Mediterranean man.: the need to build a pizza oven.
"Darling, I've been thinking about that corner in the backyard; You know the one where you wanted the Balinese daybed retreat. I thought perhaps we could go with something a little more... Mediterranean, how about we build a pizza oven!"
And so it was.....our pizza oven journey began.... and the Balinese daybed retreat with spa and flapping white sails in the cool summer breeze, suddenly ended.
Of course, the yearning to build a pizza oven is not exclusive to Mediterranean stock, and so, its quite possible that one day you may find yourself experiencing a similarly sudden urge, so we thought it only fair to share our oven building experiences with you.
Some preliminary notes on building a Pizza oven
Building a pizza oven with friends can be great fun... (I've heard). Making an oven with children can be a freeking nightmare. But if you are like us and your children have scared all your friends away, then children will simply have to do. In actual fact, we had a great time making it with our kids... ok I'm lying, but they enjoyed it... and it will endure as a lasting family memory, and that's what counts. If you make an oven with your kids, remember, while your hosing clay out of your children's eye, or mopping up hardened clay footprints from your polished floorboards, it will all be worth it when you take your first bite of your delicious home-cooked traditional pizza.
|MIXING THE COB... with friends.|
The structure of our oven is made entirely from clay, straw and sand. It's what is better known as a cob oven. Cob is a mixture of clay or soil, straw and sand. The quantities of which will vary according to the size of the oven you build. We used approximately 8 bags of powdered clay, a bail of hay, and a cubic metre of sand.
We also purchased some proper fire bricks for the cooking base, and constructed a platform for the oven using bessa-blocks and railway sleepers.
Step 1: Choosing a spot
We chose to build our oven under cover, to protect it from the weather. This said, you can build it in the open if you like, or even build a canopy for it.
Step 2: Making the platform for your oven
Before you begin mixing your clay, you need to construct some kind of platform or base for your oven to rest on. What you choose to make this out of is up to you, so long as it is able to support a heavy load and is reasonably level.
Once you have a sound platform to build on the fun begins.
step 3: Insulating base layer
Mix a combination of straw, clay and sand at approximately 3 parts sand to 1 part clay. Add as much straw as you can without the cob mix loosing its stickiness. We placed a tarp on the ground and mixed it with our feet. The kids loved it. It's easiest to sprinkle handfuls of straw on as you go, mixing it with your feet and rolling the tarp over regularly to keep the mix in the centre. Once its mixed, roll it into large balls about the size of softballs.
Roughly mark out the diameter for the base of your oven on your platform. We made ours about 90cm in diameter. Use the clay/sand/straw mixture to create a base like the one shown below. This acts as an insulating base, keeping the heat in the oven. You will notice a lip around the perimeter, this is to hold a layer of sand, about 5cm deep.
|the cob base|
|the fire bricks on a bed of sand, on the insulating cob base|
Step 4: Sand castle form.
Using wet sand, it is time to build the form for your oven, by basically making a big sand castle on top of your fire bricks. Our sand mound ended up being about 60cm high. Once you are happy with the shape, lay wet news paper over the sand castle form.
Step 5: building the thermal layer
Time to get mixing again - 1 part clay to 3 parts sand, just like before and rolling into large balls, as before. But this time don't add any straw. Begin packing the balls of clay/sand around the base of your sandcastle form, working around the base, then working your way all the way up to the top in a coiling fashion. The thermal layer should be about 10cm thick. This is the layer that retains the heat and keeps the oven hot. The thicker it is the longer it stays hot.
We built our oven door beforehand and pressed it against the sand form so that we could build around it as we went. The edge of the door is bevelled to make it easy to take in and out. This is probably easier than cutting a hole out of the cob wall at the end and then trying to make a door that fits. An important note about the door is that it must be 2/3 the total height of the oven interior. This provides the proper air flow for the fire to breath and let out smoke at the same time. We made our door out of wood and we soak it in water before using it on the oven to stop it catching alight.
Step 6: Outer insulating layer
Its back to the tarp for some more mixing, but this time we also added straw again. The basic rule of thumb here is to add as much straw as you can without the cob loosing its structure. In other words, you should still be able to roll it into balls and drop it without it falling apart.
Mixing with your feet can be hard work and its definitely worth while having some friends to help. It makes it MUUUUUUUCH easier... doing this solo, may break your spirit.
Once the cob is mixed, its time to add the final layer, much in the same way as before; working around the base first and then working your way to the top. This layer acts as an insulating layer, the straw eventually burns out, leaving air pockets in the dome, which acts as insulation. The smaller the hay pieces, the better. Make this layer nice and thick, around about 10cm.
step 7: let it dry... be patient... not like me
We learned this the hard way... and dug ours out after 4 days...
...and yep, it collapsed a few minutes later. I was a broken man, and so was my cob oven.
After several days of counselling for PCPOS (Post collapsing Pizza Oven Syndrome), we resurrected our collapsed cob from the ashes. Jo called her brothers on my behalf, and a few other mates, who came around to help with attempt number 2. This time around, we attempted a slightly less ambitious design, opting to go without the chimney, and also slightly reducing the scale of the oven.
We left it to dry for about 3-4 weeks. We removed the door, cut through the newspaper, and dug out the sand, (which we used to make the kids a sand pit) ... Success, it didn't fall down!
We had a fully functional, home-made, hand build, authentically Mediterranean (with a touch of Greek tragedy) pizza oven! I hugged the kids, and thanked them for their help, and mentioned that if they even laid a feather on our new, 2nd pizza oven, I would kill them!
We let it air dry for another week, and then prepared with great ceremony for our very first pizza night with the kids. It was fantastic! We fired it up and let it heat for about 3 hours to get it nice and hot. (about 300 degrees Celsius). The pizzas were Amazing, cooking in under 5 minutes, and tasting incredible.
In hindsight, we are so glad we made our oven... twice. Since it has given us many wonderful nights with friends and our own little family, and it looks great. So far we've made oodles of pizzas, but we've also cooked our sourdough and slow-cooked lamb shanks for a dinner party for 10... and each time we're more impressed by our amazing cob oven.
If you are keen on the idea of making your own, there are some good videos online which are worth watching for those finer details.