It was Leslie Williams, my cookery cohort at The Evening Herald who convinced me that having a wood-fired pizza oven of my very own would be the midlife crisis project for 2010. Leslie had already been down the track, with a French guy who built him an adobe one, mud and clay, in the back garden. I’d eaten the pizzas and bloody good they were too.
Not that I needed much convincing, as I’d seen Australian master baker Kingsley Sullivan perform culinary wonders with one of these ovens at the great Food & Wine symposium tasting Australia some years ago. Tasting Australia 2010 takes place in Adelaide from 28th April to 7th May. If you are down under at the time, make sure you get there. It’s enormous fun and a great opportunity to learn from famous chefs and wine writers. First off, of course, I had to convince Sibella who, amazingly was far less anti than I expected. But then she loves the garden and has always had an eye for things alfresco. Next came sourcing and here I went about things in my usual thorough, some say ‘micro-picky’ manner. The UK, having more than its fair percentage of yuppies and, indeed, keen cooks, seemed a good place to start. I found a couple of vendors, one of whom was basking in the afterglow of having built an oven for Jamie Oliver. Theirs, however, were expensive and I subsequently found the same ovens on the websites of their Italian manufacturers far cheaper, even with the hefty €300 quote (plus €150 for constructing a pallet).
Many of these people were extremely helpful and in particularly, I’d like to single out for praise Valoriani who translated and answered all my probably daft questions with infinite patience. I was very tempted to one of their ovens, a mini-sized one with a patent fire system (the fire was lit in a chamber underneath the cooking floor) and an attractive cast iron door. However the aperture through which the oven was loaded was letter-box shaped. Fine for pizzas, but not much else. I envisaged loading a loaf of bread and being unable to extract it after the dough had risen! Still, this oven was pretty… http://www.valoriani.it/eng/index.php#/2Prodotti
At this point, a gentleman from Manchester with whom I’d previously been in touch came on the phone. He sounded excited, like he’d been beach-combing and found a treasure chest of Spanish dubloons. “Ernie! I’ve cracked it!” He was in Verona at an exhibition and had found a way of stopping water coming back down the chimney, apparently every pizza oven owner’s nightmare. He just had to tell someone. I signed the order and sent the funds by bank transfer that afternoon. How could I not. Ian (still don’t know his surname) is one of life’s enthusiasts. He runs a company called Terrcotta Warehouse and has an agency for an Italian pizza oven constructed from high-tech refractory materials (which means, in lay terms, that you can fire it up to Dante’s Inferno heat and it won’t crack). His website http://www.terracottawarehouse.co.uk is choc-a-bloc with information and his prices are reasonable. What’s more, as I later found, he has absolutely no objection to being used as a one-man hotline whenever constructurally-challenged me got into difficulties with the concept or failed to read his informative sheets.
Ian has also developed a patent rendering system for keeping moisture out of the oven which can be a serious problem in northerly latitudes – “Ernie, you’ll appreciate this. It’s like Goretex for ovens”. The system is called ‘Segrelime’ and was used in the construction of my ‘Gianluca’ – Why ‘Gianluca’? It’s an old nickname, bestowed on me by customers when I was cheffing for a living after a fancied resemblance to Gianluca Vialli. It was going to be ‘Pavarotti’ – big chest, take a look at the pics, but ‘Gianluca’ eventually won the naming contest.
There are photos of ‘Gianluca’ here – in various stages of construction from post-inception to near completion. We decided not to build a dinky little house around it. There’s a good forum for pizza oven addicts at http://www.fornobravo. com but some of the pet projects thereon look like mini versions of builders’ Midlands ‘mansiuns’ from the Worst Excesses of the Celtic Tiger era RIP. At present my new cooking gizmo awaits its final coat of render, before being cured and fired up.
Roll on the first home-made Margherita! ps a couple of the pics are out of synch but I can’t suss out how to remedy this. It should be obvious that the brick courses for the plinth are laid on the concrete foundations. A few acknowledgements: Thanks to Christy and Colin for building ‘Pavarotti’ and putting up with me hovering; trying, in my inept fashion, to contribute to the construction; and generally getting in the way. To Leslie Williams and Kingsley Sullivan for the inspiration. To the Dark Lady of My Sonnets for encouragement and support and keeping me in cappuccinos while I laboured.