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Walter and the Blue Clay: My Fountain of Youth

Remember how I helped out with that clay oven a couple of weeks back? Well, I’ve been a bit obsessed with the idea of clay ovens—and having one of my own—ever since. Every red-blooded cook out there feels stronger, richer and full-er of life when cooking with fire and these time-tested ovens scratch that itch, and then some. For some, it’s our raison d’etre.

The problem I’d been having, though, was where was the Allspark—the blue clay, that is. It is the storied, major component that binds all Quebec-style clay ovens together and working with it is sublimely delightful, like an express train ride back to the womb. I had to have my own. One of the guys making the oven at Flatbread had claimed the good stuff, however, could only be found in certain bends and deltas and only in certain New England waterways. When I asked exactly which ones and how to find them, he was far less loquacious.

Feverish for another hit of blue clay, my mind whirled with the possibilities. Anyone who has a cursory knowledge of this region knows it is overflowing with rivers, creeks and streams. So, which waterways were best? What bend would be choked with this giver of life? How on earth was I going to get another hit?

Most people confronted with such unanswerable questions might give up or, at the very least, might take weeks and weeks, if not longer, to locate such an illusive substance.

Not me, though: I know Walter Lamont, Jr.

If anyone could find it, it would be Walter. His profession is construction, earth-moving, digging and whatnot but his specialty is knowing and finding things, especially things in the natural world.

“Blue clay, huh?” he asked, pausing for less than a fraction of a second before replying, “Yeah. I can help you with that.”

“Really?” I asked with just the slightest disbelief, considering all the lore I’d just absorbed about the scarcity of said clay and how closely guarded its sources were. Maybe Walter’d misheard me. “You know where there’s BLUE CLAY?”

“Sure. My backyard. Saw it a few years back. How much you need?”

“About a ton.” Surely, now I’d stumped him.

“No problem. Sunday soon enough?”

* * *

So Sunday, I drove out to Walter’s towing my utility trailer, blowing up the tire with the slow leak just before heading out. I was about 30 minutes late because I’d decided to give him three bottles of my Hod’s Smoked-Up Super Hop ale. He’d said he didn’t want anything for the clay but it was the least I could do. Problem was, I hadn’t actually bottled it yet (thus the 30-minute delay).

“Getting some clay, huh?” Walter’s ever-cheerful wife Darcie said as I pulled up, as if this was an everyday occasion.

“Follow me,” Walter said, his wiry frame pausing just long enough to point to some thin woods about a hundred yards away. “I can put it directly into your trailer.”

“I didn’t know you had a river back there,” I said.

“We don’t,” he replied, looking at me like I’d said the dumbest thing anyone had ever said.

“I thought that’s the only place you can find blue clay deposits. That’s what… I was told…”

“Don’t know anything about that but there’s definitely blue clay back there.” I let it go. If Walter says there’s blue clay somewhere, it’s not like me saying it; there’s blue clay there (further research hasn’t cleared things up; most resources simply state clay can be found as deposits in lakes, streams and wetlands).

He drove his flatbed, with the digger on top, to a spot he seemed to have chosen at random—like he was one of those guys looking for water with a forked stick, a diviner—climbed into the digger, and started clawing at the ground in a low-lying area in a stand of mixed hardwoods. One scoop. Then a second and a third and the shovel was ten feet down. When he raised the fourth scoop, it was loaded with 100% pure, Grade A, high quality Blue Clay. Can’t even guess at the street price, this stuff was so uncut. Nature's version of Blue Steel.

I checked my phone. It’d been less than 5 minutes since I’d arrived.

We’re going to make our oven this coming weekend and I’ll provide step-by-step instructions then. In the meantime, though, I can’t say enough about this clay. It really is as pure as I just claimed. The vein Walter found is so perfect it could be sold “as is” to potters, artists and cosmetic companies alike. Also, when you stick your hand in it—or try to; unless you wet it down a bit first penetrating it is likely as getting through Maid Marian’s chastity belt in Robin Hood: Men in Tights—you feel comforted and secure. Even though clay is by definition inorganic super-fine sediment smaller than silt, this particular batch feels organic, something that is intentionally trying to soothe and protect you…

Ok, Walter’s clay has decidedly made me a little loopy but what do you expect when you’ve found the Fountain of Youth? Here’s my proof--before, during and after:

And if you think that’s something, stay tuned for the blow-by-blow account and instructions for building a backyard Quebec-style clay oven… coming to the Pantry Project early next week.

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