An oven is a storage heater with a hole in the middle. Pump the heat into the structure of bricks, clay, stone or terracotta by means of a fire blazing merrily in the central void; get rid of the fire once the bricks are hot enough; then watch the heat bounce back. How long it lasts depends on how thick the walls are, but the heat is always on the wane. Bakers wake up to a white-hot oven and plan their day to the rhythm of its cooling: bread rolls to begin, meringues at the end.
Think ovens, think bread, and vice-versa. Bread was the reason for ovens. Ovens ensured that we could bake. Other uses (particularly the River Cafe's "wood-roasted vegetables", which seem to be baked in a gas oven) are incidental and latter-day.
That is not to say that other uses are bad, not at all. They came about, however, because so much energy and time had been invested in generating the heat and environment for baking bread that it would be criminal to let it go to waste. Hence, the baker's day; hence, too, the community use of the baker's oven to cook villagers' Sunday joints, or slowly stew their beans in the gentle heat.
A fad for ovens is developing, and it seems interested in wood-fired ovens not so much for baking bread but for a variation on the barbecue. The aim, it seems, is to impart that tang of charcoal, to insist on a whiff of smoke. It's very nearly a nonsense.
Brick ovens bake better bread because of their particular style of heat. In a gas or electric oven, the air gets hot. A brick oven heats the air, but also pumps it out from the floor, the sides and the roof. The loaf hasn't a chance. It cooks in a trice. And a good seal on the door means moisture is not lost but re-absorbed, giving the perfect crust.
Everybody says, "Mmmmmm, taste that wood", as they crunch a slice of wood-oven bread. They shouldn't. When the fire is out, the ashes get raked into a bin. When the bread goes in, the oven is clean and there is no taste of wood to be had. Next time you taste the wood, look underneath to see if you are actually eating a stray bit of charcoal.
Baking pizza is different. The fire is kept in, swept to one side, while the pizza is cooked - it was a hearth bread, baked before the real business of the oven was begun: making the daily loaf. With pizza, you can have a smoky, charred, charcoal flavour. Many modern, recreational users of wood-fired ovens think this is the bee's knees. A pukka baker would be horrified.
A few of us have been banging on about the glories of ovens for years. If ovens do take off, they are unlikely to be a national hit; but restaurants and bakeries might be persuaded to use them for better bread and pizza. The unhinged DIY-bbq fanatic may have a yen for such a thing, but may equally find himself (it's always a him) undone by the weather, short days and smokeless-zone regulations. Things go more smoothly in the Dordogne (an oven-man's paradise) or California. But I recommend them anywhere.
If you are mad enough to have a wood-fired oven, you will have the enthusiasm to take time over a simple bread.
200g bread flour
7g fresh yeast
Cream the yeast in the water, mix into the flour and knead to a dough. Leave in a covered bowl to rise at room temperature until double the size. Knock back and put in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for 24-36 hours.
125ml warm water
the dough from the first day
200g bread flour
Break the old dough into the water, add the flour and mix together. Knead well. Leave in a covered bowl to rise in a warm place by the side of the stove until double the size (about three hours).
450ml warm water
the dough from the last stage
10g fresh yeast
750g bread flour
Repeat the procedure in the first stage. Divide the dough and shape into two round loaves. Put these to prove upside down in baskets or bowls lined with very-well-floured cotton cloths. Cover with oiled film. Leave in a warm place until double the size.
Meanwhile, you will have been firing the oven. This will take anything between one and six hours, depending on size, shape and site. It will be hot enough when the inside has burnt clear and there is no soot on the roof. Rake out the ash and embers and test the temperature with an oven thermometer - or put your arm in and see if it can stand the heat for eight seconds. If your hairs start to frizzle, it's too hot. If the temperature is right (no more than 250C, 500F), put a door on the opening. Let it soak in the heat for 10 minutes, then mop out the floor with a wet cloth on a stick.
Turn each loaf on to a baker's peel - that's a flat wooden or metal shovel floured so the loaf will slip off into the oven. Make some diagonal slashes in the top of each loaf and load into the oven. Close the door. They should cook in about 25-35 minutes. This is a matter of trial and error and depends on the oven and your efficiency at firing.
Test for cooking by tapping the bottoms: they should ring hollow. Cool on racks. I said you would have to be mad. But the bread is often very good.
Pizza is cooked while the oven fire is at the end of its burn, with the embers drawn to one side rather than removed. This is because pizza-makers need to use the oven, and replenish its heat, all through the day.
For the dough:
15g fresh yeast
225ml hand-hot water
400g bread flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
For the topping:
1 tablespoon sun-dried tomato paste
4 tablespoons strong home-made tomato sauce
stoned black olives
handful stripped leaves fresh thyme and marjoram
salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
To make the pizza dough, cream the yeast in the water, put the flour and salt into a large bowl, make a well in the centre and pour in the water. Add the olive oil. Mix in the bowl. When it has come together, remove the dough to a work surface and knead for 10 minutes until perfectly smooth and supple. Place in a covered bowl in a warm place until double the size, about two hours.
Return the dough to the table, divide in two and shape into balls. Roll these out to fit oiled 25 centimetre pizza tins. The dough will show some resistance and want to shrink back, so give it a rest between stints of rolling and stretching.
I suggest you cook the pizza in tins - it takes practice to become adept at doing them free-form and slip them on and off the baker's peel without a squidgy disaster.
Top the dough with tomato sauce and paste, black olives and lots of fresh herbs. Keep toppings simple. Season and splatter with extra oil.
The fire in the oven should have done most of its burning. Sweep the embers to one side and put the pizzas in the centre of the oven. The oven will be so hot that there is no need to close the door. They will cook in about five minutes. You get pizza express - and sometimes pizza black and charred - but that is part of the charm.
Tom Jaine is the author of `Building a Wood-Fired Oven for Bread and Pizza', published by Prospect Books, price pounds 9.99Reuse content