Story by Rupert Titchmarsh
We have all been there, a cold wet summer day, waiting under an umbrella for the charred offerings to be presented to us by which ever alpha male has taken over barbecue duties for the day. Whilst we gnaw on what was once a juicy, succulent burger reduced to something akin to an ice hockey puck, we can mull over what it is that drives alpha male to take up cooking duties that are normally well outside of his domestic remit. Is the reality that this rustic even primitive style of cooking appeals to our most basic urges and instincts? Whatever the philosophical reasoning, there can be no denying that the banal practices of turning dials on an oven is considerably less exciting than using ones hands to generate fire through which victuals can be prepared.
Similar to barbecuing but considerably more sophisticated are wood fired ovens. Common in warmer climes, these fantastic structures are a wonderful way of cooking. The basic principle is of an earthenware dome with a flue. A fire is lit inside the onion shaped oven and the fumes escape through the chimney. The heat from the fire is absorbed by the walls of the oven which is then slowly released for cooking. The ambient heat combines with the direct heat from the fire and gives a smokey flavour which should appease even the most trenchant barbecue die-hards.
These types of ovens have been in use for many centuries, with examples still visible in the mummified ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneam. In medieval Europe they were luxury possessions of the feudal lords who would build large examples which they would rent out to the serfs to enable them to produce bread from the flour which they had produced from grain that they themselves had farmed. In modern times they were and are widespread throughout Mediterranean Europe though their spiritual home remains in Italy. Due to their constant use since Roman times it is only natural that they are predominantly used for pizzas, the best examples of which can still be found in Naples which like Pompeii lies in the shadow of Mt Vesuvius. Many of us will be familiar with them through holidays abroad and through trips to our more authentic and enlightened Pizzerias, bringing a touch of Latin glamour to the High Steet.
To categorise them as purely pizza ovens however, is to vastly undervalue their potential. Whilst heats of up to 500C can be generated which makes them ideal for pizzas, experienced users can manipulate the temperatures to cook meats, fish, vegetables and breads. They can retain their heat for days, meaning the left overs from the wood smoked roast chicken can be put into a casserole which can be left in the oven to bubble away long after the fires have gone out. Manufacturers stress the importance of getting to know one’s ovens through trial and error and it is probable that a few incinerated meals may have to be tolerated before one has the techniques down pat.
For those of you who tuned in to watch the TV series Jamie at Home you would have seen Jamie cooking in his very own wood fired oven at his home in Essex. The ovens – a range of both domestic and commercial styles and sizes – are all hand-crafted by a century-old family business in Tuscany, and sold exclusively by Jamie’s business in the UK.
About the author: Rupert Titchmarsh used to work for Northfields meat suppliers – an institution at London’s famous Borough Market. He loves everything about food including cooking, growing your own, truffle foraging and raising pigs.
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