Pizza Alfresco

Outdoor ovens promise authentic pizzas and breads made in a traditional way—outside, with fire and friends.

Originally printed in Grand, November 2016, Reprinted with permission.

They’re trending. Anyone who visits Ontario’s secret wine pocket in Prince Edward County knows to make a beeline for Norman Hardie Winery in Wellington for a perfectly blistered wood-fired pizza. After yoga in the vineyard at Three Dog Winery in Picton, those in the know stretch the cheese on their wood-fired pizza with a glass of rosé. From the Bay of Quinte to Blair, pizza ovens are dotting our local green spaces across Ontario.

The Queens Green Community Garden in Kitchener permits “outsiders” to rent its pizza oven for a fee. The price includes wood to stoke the fire and instruction from a seasoned garden member. Established in 2003 through a grant from Ace Bakery, the oven was built by volunteers, community garden members and the deft hands of Transition KW’s cob committee, affectionately known as “cobbers.”

In Elora’s Bissel Park, the Kitchen in the Park Project (KIPP) has attracted legions with its novel approach and mantra, “to bring good food to the masses,” since the ribbon cutting in 2012. The seasonal schedule offers open community bakes, acoustic cafés and pizza date nights in the park. Whether the oven is booked for personal or professional events, KIPP’s goal is to provide a community amenity and, in turn, instill active citizenship.

In November 2015, David Winger, an exchange student from Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development in Germany, decided to get in on the craze. The international forestry ecosystem management student lived at Springbank Farms in Blair as part of a DAAD Rise internship, a program that offers research scholarships for both German academics abroad and internationals in Germany. Springbank Farms is an integral part of the Rare Charitable Research Reserve.

Established in 2001, Rare is a non-profit organization that focuses on conservation and education projects that illuminate the 900-acre property’s biodiversity. Winger’s attraction to the academic exchange was in assessing the occurrence of the emerald ash borer and the impact on local woodlots. At the confluence of the Speed and Grand rivers, old-growth northern hardwood and Carolinian forests merge in a landscape that is a natural showcase of limestone cliffs and deciduous swamps. I was curious—how did the research intern jump from ash borer beetles to pizza making?

When I emailed Winger to learn more about his involvement in the clay pizza oven at Springbank Farms, he was just about to begin a 10-day tour with a band he manages in Germany. It seemed natural that he would have his hands in so many things, and a pizza oven was just another extension of his creativity. “The pizza oven project probably kicked off at a festival workshop in Germany a few years ago,” he wrote.“A friend, who had already built a few ‘classical’ ovens, was playing with the idea of trying a new design and asked me along to help him out.”

The two dove into research, a byproduct of Winger’s scholastic default setting, and hammered out some alternative designs and their own concept. Over the span of four days, the friends “instructed participants to build a portable small prototype to meet the festival organizers’ criteria, and we were able to dry-burn the oven just in time to serve fresh pizza on the very last day,” wrote Winger, who cautions that generally a two-month drying period is necessary for clay, but the project was in a condensed festival mode.

Winger’s six-month research stint at Rare culminated in the construction of his take on a Canadian clay pizza oven. At Springbank Community Gardens on Blair Road, Rare provides 110 plots measuring three by nine metres (10 by 30 feet) for aspiring agriculturalists. Everything is at the ready—mulch, water, tools and intel for novices. Synthetic fertilizer and pesticide-free, the gardens are in harmony with Rare’s eco-roots. From April 15 to October 31, the gardens are alive with enthusiasm and the grunt work of a multigenerational and multicultural crew. For $30 a season and a $20 deposit, gardeners are requested to refill the karma bank by providing two hours of volunteer service per rented plot.

With the bounty of community gardens providing a central place to celebrate the harvest, on-site pizza ovens provide more than dinner. They become automatic gathering spots for swapped stories beyond the toil and tight hamstrings of the garden plots. It’s easy to imagine the bartering—trading a few handsome zucchinis for watermelon radishes and some cilantro—and the sharing of trade secrets (pizza has an undeniable unifying force).

All the big-box stores have keyed in on recent consumer interest, too, and the designs are rolling out like iPhones, with shinier features and sleek exteriors boasting a Scandinavian aesthetic. The flashy neon orange igloo design of Italy’s Alfa Cupolino modular pizza oven mimics the Italian fire-brick hearth, eliminating the need for a trip to Tuscany. Though, since the oven clocks in at nearly $2,000, it might be cheaper to buy the airline ticket and order a few pizzas in the Tuscan hills. The contemporary models are ready to use and are hot in 20 minutes. Some are built on efficient trollies or in a compact version suitable for camping or tailgating. There are even propane pizza ovens with two cooking surfaces: a pizza stone and a separate rack for those in the crowd who don’t want pizza (who invited them, anyway?).

There are even black powder-coated pizza ovens with built-in halogen cooking lights. Is anyone else reminded of those Holly Hobby ovens from the ’70s, where you could “bake” a cake with a lightbulb? These ovens are two-timers, though. Slide in a 41 cm (16 inch) pizza or a turkey! Or a cake, if desired. With an electronic ignition and a handy full-view front window and temperature gauge, it’s cheating, isn’t it? There’s no need to split logs, but you can add a wood-chip smoker box.

Whether you’re attracted to the bells-and-whistles variety of ovens ready to load into the back of your SUV or the traditional cob ovens of clay, sand, straw and water, the historical bloodlines for outdoor ovens run deep and south. In Spain, community ovens were popular in villages where women (often after prepping the dough at home) traditionally gathered around the ovens for camaraderie and a communal bake-off. Remains of wood-fired ovens have been found in Pompeii, ancient Rome and northern Europe, where lords owned the ovens and heat—charging serfs to bake their bread.

To reach the magical temperature for a pizza in a traditional clay pizza oven, pack your patience. It can take three hours for the cob and masonry ovens to channel heat into the baking chamber. But baking in le plein air allows for extended socializing and satisfaction that can only rise from kneading your own dough. Building the perfect fire and prepping a pizza outdoors is a mini camping experience, without the tent setup and soggy sleeping bags.

Building a pizza oven in Canada, in November, “meant a month of hardship and frozen feet,” Winger confessed. Sourcing materials was the first obstacle, as naturally found clay is a rarity, especially at Rare. Heating up icy mud for construction was another daily battle, but Winger kept his eye (and rumbling stomach) on the prize.

Winger’s two-chamber design is one that creates high-energy efficiency. A fire compartment at the bottom channels smoke, hot air and flames through the back opening to the baking vault. In the baking section, an even heat from all sides should pass the stiff test of an attempted soufflé. His festival research was a lesson in durability and heat absorption. But, back to the pizza.

Donations of clay came from all angles. Local potteries, distributors and individuals with clay connections contributed to Winger’s project. Actual clay bricks from the remains of an old barn on the Rare property were also repurposed and integrated. Cambridge’s Home Depot and RONA were in on the mix, along with the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, Mar-Co Clay and Hillborn Pottery Design. It takes a village!

Winger emphasized the most critical design tip: building it high enough to be at a comfortable working height. There’s even more to consider, as the foundation needs to be vibration absorbing, and there has to be balance (the chimney must be high enough and directly behind the oven door to create constant air suction); otherwise, the entrée will be smoked out or possibly flaming. Which is OK if you are preparing saganaki, but not a pizza pie.

Springbank Farms’ oven is a brick structure filled with a blend of sand and stone. Metal rebar supports the dome ceiling while clay and straw insulate the chamber. Remember lopsided elementary school papier mâché projects? Winger’s project takes a piñata to the next level. Old newspapers and sand were applied and smoothed to create a dome mould with layered flat clay stones defining the dome chamber. The mould is eventually removed and the newspaper pulled off in an anxious moment of crossed fingers that everything holds. Another clay-and-straw mix is used to insulate the chamber further, and the final coat is a smooth layer of dry mix. Dave Smith, a Rare volunteer and resident photographer for over 10 years, designed and built the homemade cedar door and pizza peel.

Since Winger’s return home (when not on the road with the band), he admits to “being hooked on clay as a building material in general.” He’s continued to play with the medium and says, “It has resulted in a couple more experimental versions, including a smoker. At the moment, I am working together with the same friend on a new invention that synthesizes existing energy-efficient burning methods (e.g., pyrolysis and a rocket stove) to further reduce resource consumption and preheating time.”

I’m not surprised to learn that Winger, between his studies and pizza prep, sees a “hay bale or hemp-insulated house with clay plastering” on his to-do list. Since his internship at Rare, he’s been “focusing primarily on the development and implementation of an environmental education and nature experience concept for parents and their children,” he says. And, if that weren’t enough, he’s also building the foundation for “a small startup project for decomposable wood-based designer packaging.”

From farm to oven, Winger’s wood-fired pizza depot gives new meaning to takeout. For community garden members, the only takeout will be of vegetables from the soil for a rinse and chop to top the pizzas.

Winger says the inaugural Springbank pizza toppings were pretty standard: “In my opinion, less is more, and it all comes down to the self-made dough and Italian tomato sauce (no less than six hours cooking).” For pizza pie slingers, he suggests “cheese on top and maybe some local ham served with fresh rocket greens” as unbeatable. “For seasonal reasons, I have lately started to puzzle people with a white sauce (flour based) and an asparagus, wild herb and mushroom combination, watching skeptics turn into believers,” he adds.

And going from ash borer beetle research to outdoor pizza, Winger has left an indelible and edible legacy. Danke!

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