We used the cob oven this week for the first time – very exciting!
We’d had some really sunny and dry weather but I knew that the oven was going to still need a lot of drying out time, so I wasn’t sure how the first fire would go… It was an exciting experimental process and part of the discovery of getting to know the oven!
I was with Oak, the year two class at Dunkirk, all day, with their teacher Mark Woodings and their teaching assistant Michelle Loach. Between the three of us therefore we were able to facilitate a whole set of things happening in parallel with the children. Whilst at the very start of the morning I worked with a very small group to sort fuel and light the fire in the oven, the rest of the class had a wonderful telling of the Little Red Hen story, complete with lots of visual and tactile props.
Throughout the day, the class all made bread dough in groups – it was important they all had a chance to explore this (the whole school does a lot of cooking all year round, so using the oven is just a part of a much wider set of on-going activities). We’re also hoping to have a bread week at school in September, where all classes can make a whole set of different breads and test out lots of different methods used around the world to bake and share bread.
Oak class have been exploring their self-generated question of “how things move” and also recently been looking at space. So as a brilliant hands-on way of exploring this they all worked in small groups to build rockets from old carbonated drinks bottles, which were then test-launched with Mark’s foot-pump. It meant that we were launching rockets and firing the cob oven all at the same time (all whilst little groups also made dough and looked at yeast rising etc). The rockets worked really well, some went incredibly high and I loved that happening whilst we cooked
Because we were on the school field and Discovery Garden (they are all part of the same area) all day it meant there was exactly enough space for all of these things to be happening alongside each other. There was a wonderful host of questions, observations, thoughts and ideas all being exchanged. The children could watch what each other were doing and had the physical space they needed to do this.
So as I stoked the fire in the oven and cut firewood with some children, there were rockets being fired nearby and really interesting discussions amongst the children.
There were also lots of loose parts being turned into potions, concoctions, images and stories…
It was wonderful to finally light the oven, the fire got going well but did need to be stoked a lot. I didn’t want to make a big fire in it and I was wary of causing cracks with any sudden changes in temperature. We had the oven lit all day and it did take at least three hours to get hot enough to begin to cook bread. Its all an experiment and so important for the children to see adults willing to test and not always know how things will turn out. The first batch of rolls came out a bit soft (“I’d like some dumplings” one boy said!) but were cooked through and had a great slightly smoky taste. By the end of the day the oven was cooking the little bread rolls really well and had built up a great amount of heat.
You have to “soak” the oven through with the heat, it works as a heat-retaining chamber and it’s the residual heat that you cook with. Its was really interesting seeing how hot the different parts of the oven became and which part held the most heat – and that’s important in helping us to learn how to cook with it. Every clay oven is slightly different and I like the idea that you have to get to know your own oven!
We’ve not had a chance to make a door for the oven yet and I used a set of bricks to close the doorway (and thereby retain the heat) whilst we cooked with it – this seemed to work fine. I liked the little bits of smoke emerging from the doorway, especially as they swirled around the little character that sits just about the door!
In terms of using a cob oven in school, it does need an adult with it throughout and there’s loads of practical aspects that are crucial – especially as you are using fire. (One of the really important elements of my Forest School training was the health and safety aspects of making and using fire, safely, with children.) The school needs to be committed to using the oven and have enough members of staff willing to do this – and that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about our cob oven at Dunkirk.
Building and using a clay oven in a school does feel a process that is making several important ethical points. It’s about making things yourself – not buying them in ready made. It’s about slowing down and understanding that things take time. It’s about cooking and sharing food – and creating a social and community space to do this. It’s about the ecology of the way we cook and use fuel and it’s about understanding where our food comes from. It’s about the spaces we give to our children and to ourselves as adults.
Whilst we ate our bread we were able to take in all the other aspects of the natural world around us. Damselflies are now busy in the Discovery Garden, as well as many bees, beetles, butterflies and so much more. The pond has many small creatures in it. Flowers are out, many different kings of leaves are about, there are very visible signs of the cycle of life – cuckoo spit, leaf-galls of various kinds are plentiful as well as some small remains of a couple of dead birds killed, we think, by a sparrowhawk (the children don’t touch these but are really interested). These things provide crucial points for discussions about the natural world.
So, we hope to use the oven again at least once a week for the rest of term and we’ll get to know it more and more as we do so. Its providing such a wonderful talking point and we’ve had some very inspiring conversations with families about cooking traditions around the world. Many of the children at school come from a whole host of countries and either they or their families have first hand experience of cooking in many different ways.