“Almost anything you can cook in your domestic oven, you’ll be able to cook in a clay oven, and in most cases the food will be better for it… So if you can find around two square metres in your garden, and three spare days in your life, you could build yourself something truly special. Your humble backyard could be transformed into a Mecca of gastronomy.”
the River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens.
What a great set of experiments – firing up our new oven and cooking food in it to test out the different ways things work…
We’ve done bread and last week we made pizza. This week we think we’ll try baked apples, roast vegetables (with fresh herbs from the Discovery Garden) and possibly biscuits…
The practicalities of using the oven begin to take a firmer shape the more we use it. It does take a good 3 hours to get to the right temperature to cook bread and pizza and it does need someone staying with it during that time to stoke it. Obviously in a school this means that if we set the oven going at 9am then its ready to cook by lunchtime, which works well if you are trying to cook a class lunch in it, but not if you are wanting to make a mid morning snack!
If we want to use the oven in a morning with a class then it might be that we set the oven going at 8am or maybe we choose to cook a selection of things that don’t need the oven to be so hot.
The pizza tasted great, year 5 did a wonderful job creating small pizzas with their chosen vegetable toppings. They made very thin dough bases but these still did need the oven to be incredibly hot in order for them to cook through.
Making bread and pizza dough from scratch is brilliant and I feel really strongly that all children should be able to experience this. Food shouldn’t appear in an instant and good things are worth working at and waiting for! In our modern world we have become more and more alienated from having to make things ourselves and understand the time (and joy) it really takes to create so much that we want to consume and use. But equally we may need a few ways we can cook things that won’t need the oven to get so hot!
I’ve had some really lovely feedback and questions about the whole process of creating our oven at Dunkirk. It’s a big team effort and I think a project like this wouldn’t work without that team of people wanting to be involved.
I think one of the things I’ve found really exciting is that the cob oven is like a work of art in its own right (and creating it was an amazingly powerful community project) but it’s a thing that is then used and takes on a life of its own. Its not an object that just sits there – we interact with it, we create food to cook in it, we share food around it, we chatter and we build friendships by sharing it.
In terms of having a cob oven in school it has to be something that is taken on board by a team of people who will use it and look after it.
If considering building one in school, some of these things are key:
You need some funds to create a cob oven, but actually not much – most things you need can be begged and borrowed and found. You can dig the clay up if you have the right soil (we bought ours because our soil is very sandy and we used about 10 bags because the children made cob models too), you can find stone for the base if you hunt around and you can maybe scrounge a bale of straw…
The materials are heavy to move on site – we had to move all of the bags of sand from the builders merchant, piles of the bricks which were donated and the concrete we used to set the base on a firm level.
The building of it needs to be overseen by someone who either has used cob or clay or who has an understanding of the process, (there are a few techniques that need to be in place when its built for it to work as a structure), so maybe the greater expense is actually either paying for someone to come in and facilitate the build or to attend a cob building course – or just the time to experiment a bit beforehand to get the feel for the techniques.
The building of it needs to be done by as many people as possible so that there is a real sense of ownership and an investment in it.
You can only get a small number of children round the oven when building it, so its vital there are a set of interesting parallel activities going on alongside it.
Building it is messy and wonderful fun – you need the right space, the right clothing and loads of room.
The cob oven sits on a base of stone or brick – and that has to be put in place first (we are really glad that our bricks were donated).
When built, it needs a shelter building over it, which can be really simple but it needs protecting from the elements, at least in the UK. You can cover it with a tarpaulin when not in use. We have a simple gazebo at the moment but are going to build a wooden structure soon.
When ready, it needs a few people willing to fire it on a regular basis (so they need to thereby understand safe ways to create fires and use fire with a clay oven).
It needs a team of people willing to cook in it and make food with the children – and to experiment!
When it's being used, there needs to be lots of other activities going on around it because there’s only so long a class will watch a fire being stoked and collect / cut wood…!
There are some wonderful websites with images and information about cob on them, I’ve found Kikko Denzer’s book vital and also the River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens.
“There is nothing in the world as satisfying to eat as home-baked, handmade bread… it seems a shame that bread has become so standard and commonplace, that we don’t even consider what a small miracle a risen loaf is…”
the River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens.