Food: The great outdoors: All fired up

If the River Cafe is to be believed, the wood-fired oven is the year's hottest cooking trend. But is it practical for the rest of us? Christopher Hirst puts the case for his beehive oven in our three-page special on cooking outdoors. Photograph by Dan Burn Forti
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In one of those mysterious waves of fashion which sometimes sweeps the culinary world, 1997 has become the year of the wood-fired oven. Radio 4's Food Programme recently devoted an edition to this primeval technique. Restaurants like Moro in Clerkenwell and the River Cafe in Hammersmith have installed wood-fired ovens in order to authentically reproduce Mediterranean cuisine. And to the chagrin of some who have bought it, many recipes in the newly published River Cafe Cook Book Two, by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, make us of this ancient method. Wood-roasted vegetables get a chapter to themselves.

All of which explains why, on a torrential Saturday in June, I found myself on an industrial estate, on the outskirts of Wallingford in Oxfordshire. I was on my way to pick up a "Beehive" terracotta oven from a company called Cesol Tiles.

"I hope you've got a big car," said Paul Salter, Cesol's owner, before I set off. "The oven is about two foot by two foot." It didn't sound all that much, but I changed my mind when I saw Paul using a fork-lift truck to load the stove into the back of my station-wagon. Conical in shape, with a single square aperture in its bulky walls, it resembled a gigantic Saracen helmet. Paul explained that he had fallen in love with wood-burning ovens while on tile-buying tours in Portugal.

"The terracotta stoves they use have a very thin skin and are usually cemented into oil drums with rock-wool as insulation," he inspired. "They work very well, but look terrible. To make them acceptable to the home market, we got the manufacturer, who is based outside Oporto, to put one smaller stove inside a larger one and fill in the gap with insulating material."

The insulation is needed because the stove cooks by radiant heat. The temperature of the wood fire is absorbed by the three-inch-thick walls and then slowly released over a number of hours. As a result, the Beehive weighs around 95kg (14 stone). Unless you are prepared to squat on the ground like a Tuareg tribeswoman while doing your cooking, the oven needs to be put on a raised base. Paul told us that a two-foot stand needs 70 bricks, a three-foot one 100. Or we could buy a purpose-made table from Cesol for pounds 90.

Having got the beast, plus table, back to our home, I was left with the minor problem of how to move it into the rear garden of a south-London terraced house. Things looked even worse when I found that both exterior doors were less than two feet wide. For a week or so, my wife and I drove round with the monstrous helmet as a bizarre sentinel in the back of the car.

It began to cross my mind that there was a lot to be said for an ordinary disposable barbecue. But by borrowing a trolley three of us managed, without too much difficulty, to trundle the Beehive into position and heave it on to the table. In all this palaver, it somehow escaped my mind that we also needed wood. Like the poverty-stricken bloke in "Good King Wenceslas", we went gathering fuel. In desperation we bought the first load from a local garage at enormous expense. Later we found cherry wood in the depths of Kent, at a relatively modest pounds l.30 a sack.

At last, we were able to cook in the same way as much of humanity has been doing for the past 6,000 years. Unfortunately, our first essay in culinary atavism was not a great success. The fire started readily enough - you apply a match to a couple of scrunched-up sheets of newspaper topped by kindling, and add four or five logs. But we started too late at night and the Beehive did not get hot enough. Overcome by hunger, we finished cooking our pork chops with electricity.

Determined not to make the same mistake twice, on the second night I fired up the Beehive like a Bessemer converter (though the exterior never seems to get too hot to touch). When the logs turn to white ash, you scrape them to one side and then get sizzling. First into the Beehive went a casserole of cuttlefish chunks, marinaded in lemon juice and olive oil with some garlic and flat-leaf parsley. After five minutes or so, it was done. The cephalopod emerged wonderfully succulent and tender in a sharpish, smoky sauce.

For a giant, filleted halibut, which a generous friend had hauled over from Guernsey in a dripping carrier bag, I appropriated the River Cafe recipe for wood-roasted turbot. Cut into generous steaks, the fish was lightly seasoned and brushed with olive oil, then bunged into the Beehive for 20 minutes. Served in a sauce made from the fish juices - with added capers, parsley and lemon juice - the result was excellent, with the halibut imbued with the lightest hint of smokiness. The accompanying Desiree jacket potatoes, which went in an hour and a quarter earlier, were a revelation: creamy yellow with a rich smoky flavour. I have never had a better baked spud.

But the stove still had plenty of life left in it. So I tried out a River Cafe recipe for slow-roasted pork, which utilises the slow cooling of the wood stove. Though the book specifies shoulder of pork, I used a small leg joint. The meat is slashed before cooking and the clefts are filled with a mixture of garlic, ground fennel seeds, salt, pepper and crumbled chillies. After we finished our fish supper, I popped the foil-wrapped joint into the oven and put its engagingly primitive wooden door in place. A piquant perfume eddied around the raspy surface of the terracotta as we went to bed. This mode of cooking magically concentrates the meat flavour - without drying it out. By the morning, an ordinary joint of supermarket meat had been transformed to moist, spicy perfection.

In subsequent firings, we discovered that this long, slow cooking is just as good with vegetables. A simple casserole of banana shallots, cherry tomatoes and chicory, all left whole, emerged as an unctuous, unresisting plate of sweet toothsomeness.

When the oven is at its hottest, immediately after the fire has died down, it is best used for home-made pitta bread, which puffs up into miniature duvets in a most satisfactory fashion. With its biscuity crumb and soft, steamy interior, the pitta was irresistibly addictive. But better still were some ciabatta rolls made from an instant mix (just add water, olive oil and knead) which went into the oven about half an hour after the pitta.

The ciabatta came out as knobbly, fist-sized lumps with a crust which varied from honey-gold to dark tan. It was, I think, the finest bread I've ever tasted, a smoky, crunchy explosion of flavour.

The oven imparted a similar authenticity to my wife's tarte provencale. The puff-pastry base was satisfactorily ribbed with carbonised striations. The mushrooms were slightly gnarled, the black olives were somewhat puckered, the tomato slices had become wonky cartwheels - but all were still plump and full of flavour. "The burnt bits aren't burnt?" my wife asked anxiously. I assured her that it was just terrific.

Cooking with the Beehive inevitably involves a certain amount of guesswork. A large chicken, which we left in the oven overnight, emerged unpalatably pink because the temperature was too cool. But everything else has been a striking success. From baked quails to baby purple artichokes cooked with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, from a joint of roast beef to flash- sizzled breast of duck, all the wood-cooked dishes shared a deep intensity of flavour while retaining the moisture which tends to be lost with a barbecue. You don't even have to be particularly good at cooking. Virtually everything that comes out of the oven is of top restaurant quality.

The Beehive needs quite a bit more fuel on cold nights, but Paul Salter insists that it isn't only for use in summer: "We cooked our turkey in it last Christmas." Like other Beehive owners, we are a little concerned by cracks which seem to be steadily encroaching across the terracotta. "It doesn't affect the cooking," Mr Salter breezily assured us. "Our Portuguese friends say forget it."

Though we still have to find somewhere to store our wood supply - our drawing room looks like a lumber yard - this slight drawback of owning a Beehive pales into insignificance the moment you insert its delicious output into your mouth. For anyone who likes cooking or, more to the point, who pays the slightest regard to what they're eating, it really is the bee's knees.

The Beehive Oven costs pounds 195 (including VAT) and is available from Cesol Tiles, 11 Bushell Business Centre, Hithercroft Road, Wallingford OX10 9DD (Tel: 01491 833662). UK delivery is pounds 35

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