When looking through our Four Grand-Mere (lit. ‘Grandmothers oven’) wood fired and gas fired ovens list you’ll notice that we offer not only our standard dome height and arch entry but also an optional raised version (marked with the code -H+) that is 75mm higher.
Following on from my post about smoke-control-areas I thought I’d put down a few thoughts about firewood species and the importance of reducing the moisture content as low as practically possible.
Wet wood doesn’t burn!
All the nonsense you’ve ever read about clearing woodland in temperate Europe by setting it alight is just that, nonsense. Trying to burn standing timber or even under-storey wood is, as the late Oliver Rackham points out, “like trying to burn wet asbestos”. ( History of the Countryside p72 Dent 1986). Historical references to burning woodland normally refer to charcoal burning, a widespread industry that was both local and semi industrial in scale. The widespread notion that Britain was largely untamed wildwood well into historical times doesn’t bear any close examination- there is plenty of evidence that by the Roman occupation, Britain was only about 15-20% woodland, about the same as modern rural France.
Woodland soils in lowland Britain are generally more fertile than tropical rain forests and probably supported small clearings of crops for short periods with men clearing small wood with grazing animals and stone tools. The great clearances were probably Neolithic to Bronze Age but even now there is very little evidence as how they managed it, the labour involved and how long it took. We know from their legacy of stone monuments and track ways that they were very well organised and must have worked co-operatively in large numbers. Undoubtedly, it is one of the greatest agricultural achievements ever.
Following the announcement from London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, that he will be reviewing the impact of wood-fired appliances in the region it seems timely to look at the alternatives( gas-pizza-ovens) given the high and often illegal levels of airborne particulate pollution.
The Clean Air Act was enacted in 1956 as a direct result of life threatening smogs arising from urban industrial output and coal-fired domestic fireplaces . With amendments in 1968 and more recently in 1993 with later revisions in David Cameron’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’, the government has sought to control pollution but at the same time cut bureaucratic interference in day to day business operations.
The initial impetus to control pollution was the burden of dark smoke with high particulate levels that was causing health to decline rapidly in the 50’s. The concept of clean burning appliances was enacted in law so that DEFRA, the government department in charge of policing pollution, could create an ‘exempt appliance’ list, appliances that had met targets for particulate output and enabled business to carry on in a more environmentally friendly way within Smoke Control Areas.
Although industrial pollution and coal burning has fallen dramatically over the last 50 years, transport has grown exponentially and has largely negated the gains in clean air in all our major cities. With cars, buses, heavy goods lorries and trains all now contributing to the particulate load via diesel engines, wood-burning appliances have now been singled out as a major contributory factor in modern pollution. Wood-burning stove use has also increased exponentially as wood is carbon neutral unlike fossil fuels and is the the ultimate ‘eco’ fuel when burned in an ‘exempt appliance’- low emissions when the fuel is dried below 20% moisture.
Unfortunately, wood as a resource is completely unregulated in its supply- some log deliveries could be seasoned and be still 30-50% moisture others 20% or less. A few companies have challenged this with fuel that is kiln dried and guaranteed less than 20% before delivery, others have sought to use compressed wood waste in the form of ‘heat logs’ to reduce the moisture content even further.
The issue now is these fuels and appliances are being called into question as part of this new review and it looks like wood burning may be outlawed altogether even though wood smoke is the raison d’etre for many authentic cooking cuisines like pizza and grills.
We stand in a long tradition of wood-fired oven designing and building going back to remains found at the Roman city of Pompeii, near modern Naples, Italy. Wood-fired ovens in various forms, mostly unfired clay, probably existed for thousands of years before but the existing ovens have given us a model for construction and design detail that has been built on and refined over succeeding generations.
Wood-fired ovens can be found in every culture that has access to natural fuel as a resource and grain as a food. The building materials used vary from region to region but one thing they have in common is their refractory nature; they hold heat for extended periods without degrading, enabling successive batches of bread to be cooked on one heating cycle. Today, modern high alumina clays and crushed firebrick are formed into shapes, brick, tile or segment, and fired to give a stable product resistant to temperatures up to 1700C. These form the basis of brick built ovens.
Gardens are changing! Despite the vagaries and unpredictability of the Great British climate, it has become clear over the last 5-10 years that peoples’ attitude to their gardens has undergone a huge shift in priority; from the delicate balancing act of the various demands put on them from families to a more complex integration of interior and exterior life. Contemporary garden design seeks to rebalance that life making a seamless transition between in and out whilst still making the most effective use of exterior spaces. Whether you’ve a small courtyard in a new-build estate or a large country garden, the resolution of competing demands on the garden is the professional designers job, creating spaces that reflect your way of life in a sustainable, ethical way by using materials and technologies that have the least environmental impact. Gardens should be havens of peace and quiet, simple in design but complex in possibilities, a solace from the bustle of everyday life and rich in texture, colour, fragrance and form.
To this end then, the integration of terrace, lawn, water and planting with built structures which may include an outdoor cooking area are thought of as zones of inclusive or exclusive activity. Kids playing with a ball on the lawn may be separated from a secluded terrace to stop a football landing on dining table full of food and drink whereas a cooking zone by the dining area would be a fully inclusive activity as food can be prepared and eaten locally. A series of overlapping zones of inclusivity and exclusivity can be developed by the designer to help you, the client, feel at home and at ease with the pathways around and through a series of spaces.
Integration of lighting in spaces extends the time you can spend outside making evenings sitting around eating and socializing easily achievable and with a wide range of low power lights available it has never been easier to coordinate, define and link spaces together.
Now that the spaces are zoned, set out and lit, how do we move forward to think about cooking.
As specialists in outdoor cooking but with a background in landscape design and build, we know how complex choosing appliances and accessories can be. We have separated outdoor cooking into two main areas; interdependent and independent. Interdependent may be defined by its proximity to dining areas and whether there is a stylistic similarity in design and material. Independent may be thought of as ‘bush’ or wild cooking where the whole concept is portability and informality, typified by say a firepit on a beach or a dutch oven on a camp fire in the woods.
There can be a cross-over between the two with a large fixed firepit being in the first category but in general the two concepts are separately zoned.
The Interdependent cooking area or outdoor kitchen although stylistically linked is scalable in size and may include taps, sinks, water heaters, hidden waste bin, cupboards, stone worktops, drop or slide in bbq/grill and, of course, a wood-fired oven! In terms of garden design, siting has to be thought about carefully as access should be convenient, the position of the evening sun noted and potential hazards like smoke and turbulence taken into account. In small gardens and courtyards in estates and cities, there are probably only a few options for siting but if possible be aware of prevailing wind blowing into the mouth of a wood-fired oven. It can cause blow back of smoke from inside the oven lowering its efficiency and generally causing a nuisance to friends and neighbours, especially when firing up from cold. Whilst garden ovens are not covered by the Clean Air Act, councils can issue Statuary Nuisance Notices if smoke is a problem which then leads to complaints.
As you’d expect from us, we normally specify higher-end appliances for integration into our outdoor kitchens. Not necessarily because they are automatically better but because they are generally better made, are trouble free and are designed well for ease of maintenance. Once installed, we don’t want to be dragged back around the country because an appliance doesn’t work or falls apart. Having installed many types of BBQ over the years, we keep coming back to the US made Firemagic range, a very well made set of appliances that are a joy to use and come in a wide range of options for setting into workstations. In addition to the BBQ’s there are a huge range of accessories like grills and burners that can run off mains or bottled gas. There are options too for charcoal run BBQ’s for those who don’t want to use gas. Our ethos is wherever possible to use wood or charcoal as a fuel as it is carbon neutral but we offer the whole Firemagic range to our customers and the brochure can be found on the website
We have a wide range of firepits and accessories to choose from, rustic and hand-crafted or ultra-minimal modern, you choose……..The design of your garden dictates the look but you’ll find something, even extraordinary, in what we can get hold of! Modern Italian and German minimal or Indian rustic. Below are just a few examples………
Insert Accessories and firepit products
Almost anything is possible either off-the-shelf or bespoke, its just a decision we have to talk through when we discuss budgets and lead-in times. These larger installations (above) are great focal points for gathering around when it gets cool in the evenings and firepits usually have the option of adding a grill so food can be cooked informally while getting warm and toasty at the same time.
One of our distributors introduced us to the Kamado Joe BBQ and Grill. The concept is japanese and the kamado was used to cook and heat homes for millennia. The modern version is a refractory clay lined vessel with a range of accessories made in the US and users tell us that they are superb cooking environments as they can be adjusted in temperature easily for either high heat cooking or for slow low heat roasts. Like the Indian and Middle Eastern Tandoor, it is heated by charcoal but the Kamado Joe can be adjusted in temperature by controlling the air flow through vents fitted top and bottom. It also comes on a handy wheeled stand so it is movable on the terrace. It is possible to supply without a stand for fixed installations, where it can be set in a worktop and supported underneath. These are not on the website yet but are available from us to order. Available in two sizes, Standard Joe and Big Joe and in two colours, red or black.
For the minimal and modernist amongst you, we have a range of modular outdoor kitchen units imported from Germany that can fit into your contemporary garden scheme- german engineered using stainless steel and sustainable plantation teak, the units fit together in series and feature sink units, cutting and prep areas, grill and BBQ. There are other solutions like the image below where units are sunk into cast concrete work tops/ shelves creating a bespoke but neat solution to outdoor living and easily adaptable to modern garden designs. Just recently we have been sent a new exciting range of modular units from a French company based near our oven manufacturer in the Alsace. It features a flexible approach to assembling a kitchen with modules available in different colourways and with each unit designed to take sink, prep area and a gas hotplate. With a selection of soft closing drawers and handy hidden storage, the outdoor kitchen has really come of age!
We know by experience of working with demanding busy clients that the need to get it right is a priority and that often decisions are difficult to negotiate when a client is away sometimes for weeks on end. All we ask is lines of communication are kept open and that decisions are made quickly so as not to hinder progress. There are few things more stressful than having the builders in so please make allowances for our presence and you will be rewarded with a stunning job when you finally get rid of us!
Above are some examples of bread baking using a home-made sourdough starter or in the case of the Pain au Raisin, commercial yeast. The breads feature different types of slash pattern that enables the dough to rise in a controlled way.
Sourdough starter or Levain
Sourdough requires a natural leaven made from just water and flour left open to natural yeasts in the air to start the fermentation. It usually takes several weeks to get a viable fully active Levain or starter, one that is bubbly enough to grow fast within the dough and has got that classic tangy sour smell so typical of the bread.
The flour for the starter can be any good quality organic bread flour, white, brown, rye or a combination. Wild yeasts do quite like rye as a food so adding a bit in always helps. Always mix at 100% hydration-so normally 100g of flour to 100g water- mixed in a closable clean container to keep unwanted moulds out. Stir every day until you see small bubbles appearing then pour half the mixture away. Add fresh flour/water as before until the bubbling is more pronounced. Keep discarding half the mixture until the mixture is really bubbling well and even trying to get out of your container!
There are many recipes for basic sourdough bread baking on line but the fundamentals are this- measure out your volume of flour, say 600g, and put into a bowl. On your kitchen scales, we’re going to aim for approx 1kg 70% hydration loaf, so measure 400g of water and 100g of levain and add to the flour. Don’t mix it, just leave it there for about 30mins- this is known as autolyse- and helps the fermentation process start.
Start to mix together with 2 tsp fine sea salt until all the ingredients are blended evenly then there are two ways to go-
1. Folding method
Both work but with folding, all you do is keep stretching one side of the dough and pulling it over the other side and then resting. You do this every hour until you feel the dough change- it will start to feel pillowy and resistant to breaking. It means the gluten is aligning itself in strands and strengthening the dough. If it feels loose, give it another fold and rest.
2. Kneading method
From your blended mix, pick up your dough with two hands, thumbs on top, and keep flipping the dough over on itself. It will be horribly sticky to start with but after about 5-10 mins it will tighten and come together as a ball. Ideally knead for about 15 mins then rest and leave to rise.
Proving- does your dough rise?
The dough should now rise slowly. Again there are several ways forward. Let it rise naturally in a cool room until double in size or leave tightly covered in the bowl overnight in the fridge. The cooler and longer the proving the better tasting the dough will be. Either way when doubled in size, knock back and stretch the dough out into a square, pulling each corner out and folding it back in on itself. This stretching tightens the gluten.
Forming- forming the shape
Keep stretching the dough a few more times and let rest. The idea now is to drag the dough toward you with a tiny amount of flour so that it really tightens and forms a ball. Use a scraper to drag it and eventually you’ll get a tight ball with a taught skin.
Second rising-its alive and well
There are again several ways to contain your loaf- a tin, a banneton or cloth lined basket or a couche which is a floured linen cloth that is folded to support the dough. Take your dough and scoop it up with your scraper and turn it upside down into a banneton so that the top is down. For a tin, you’d scoop up and drop it top up and for a couche, you’ll more than likely form a longer loaf and drop it upside down. Let is rise again until when poked gently will return slowly to its original form.
Baking- making it edible!
The oven or wood-fired oven should be preheated to about 250C, some bakers go a bit lower some higher but either way the baking time will be adjusted accordingly. If baking in an oven in the kitchen try and use baking stone as its good at retaining an even heat and put a tray with a small amount of boiling water at the bottom for steam. Turn out your risen loaf onto a small floured peel so the top is now up, flour it and slash with a very sharp knife or Lame ( a short handle with a razor blade ) and slide onto the stone. Bake for 30-40 mins until it sounds hollow. A tin can be put straight in after you’ve floured and slashed the top. If on a couche, flip the dough upside down onto your peel, flour and slash as above.
When ready, your loaf will sound hollow, well browned and crusty. It will crackle as it cools but don’t get tempted to eat it yet no matter how hungry you are, the starches are a bit indigestible whilst hot. The starches need to set so once its cooled down to room temperature get stuck in and enjoy your handiwork.
If you’re lucky and everything worked out, you should have a well risen loaf, full of air bubbles, crusty and slightly caramelised on the outside and light, fluffy and tangy on the inside.
Artisan Bread baking is an adventure, many things can and do go wrong at every stage but bakers know that working methodically helps to eliminate those errors. Write down your successful recipes and pass them on and when you’re ready for the ultimate test, buy yourself a wood-fired oven and up your game!
You never know, you may catch the bug and try and do it professionally so if you do, please know we are here to help you get started with trade discounts and advice.
If you want to join fellow bread bakers on your journey, consider joining the Real Bread Campaign, a force for getting the industry to make better bread and encourage artisan bakers in their quest for great tasting bread.