If you give a Hodding some clay...
Sorry for the extremely long break but several things got in my way—mainly, the Quebec-style clay oven and my new job. Basically, it’s the same excuse because, if you don’t remember, after taking my daughters to apply for waitering jobs at Flatbread, I applied for and got a bartending job and then decided to build my own oven on a whim after helping build the one for Flatbread.
So, blame it all on Flatbread.
The last you heard, I believe, the Flatbread Company’s traveling oven builders had taught me how to build a clay oven and my friend Walter Lamont had miraculously produced all the blue clay I needed. Since I knew I could do a lot more with it than just offer facials to my friends, I spent a few days gathering the rest of the materials I needed and then started building.
And it took over my life.
Here's a list of materials and abbreviated instructions on how I built a 5-by-3 foot Quebec-style Clay Oven:
The Foundation or Base
1) Stone, brick and/or enough used concrete blocks (broken up into rock-sized pieces) to fill a 7’-by-5’-by-3’ base.
I’m guessing the weight of the base materials to be about 3 tons since it’s roughly the same size as the finished oven--which has 3 tons of material in it.
2) Three or more bags of unmixed mortar or concrete (e.g. Quikrete)
The goal here is to build a base high enough you don’t have to stoop over too far while you’re baking and strong enough to hold up a 3 ton oven... I first built a wooden frame about 3’ tall, 7’ long and 5 ‘ deep and then filled it first with loose larger rocks and broken pieces of an 8-foot sidewalk, which I got by calling the phone number on a contractor’s sign posted near a demolished sidewalk I drove by. Then I poured in as much cement as I needed to fill my frame and make my base solid..
The Slab and Oven Floor
1) 6 bags of ready-mix concrete
2) 50 9”-by-4 1/2” fire bricks
Once you’ve built your foundation/ base and it’s hardened, build a frame on top of your base that’s smaller than the top of the base, about 5’ long and 3 ‘ deep and about 3.5” high to contain the concrete for your 5’-by-3- by- 3.5” slab. Mix the concrete wet enough so it can self-level.
Once the slab dries—at least 24 hours—lay out the fire-bricks on top of the slab and mortar them in place. I left a gap in the bricks of roughly 16-inches down the middle of the slab so my fire would burn at a slightly lower level than my baking area on top of the firebricks.
1) Two dozen or more saplings about 8-feet tall and 1" to 1 1/2" thick.
2) 1 1/2 tons of clean blue clay, or the like
3) 1 1/2 tons of fine sand
4) 1 bale of hay or straw
5) 1 5-gallon bucket ash
I eye-balled the building of the domed sapling frame around my slab—basing my it on the shape of the frame of the oven I helped build for Flatbread. You want to have a ceiling somewhere around 30-inches tall inside your oven (I actually saw a reference to a study done regarding the optimum height for this and it was 26-point-something inches... It's pretty surprising and impressive how much history and thought these clay ovens have and there are a good number of books and pamphlets out there about them. There’s a free online one called The Bread Ovens of Quebec and a popular one by Kiko Denzert called Earth Ovens). I left my wooden frame for the slab in place so I could fasten the ends of the saplings in place as I bent them into position to form a dome over the center of the slab. This took at least two people—Anabel and Angus, mostly, but Helen and Eliza helped as well. I did the same (fastened the ends to the wooden frame for the slab) for the saplings I bent over the width of the oven and then we tied whatever saplings we could together with waxed twine, using square knots. My goal was to end up with nothing larger than 4” square gaps between any pieces of wood. Any bigger holes would allow too much clay ooze through and any closer together was unnecessary, according to my advisers from Flatbread.It’s pretty
Once the sapling frame was in place—and it was a gorgeous piece of work, by the way—the rest of the work was physically hard but, finally, not as mentally challenging. We simply built bricks out of clay, sand, hay and ash and put them in place. The walls ended up being around 15" thick.
My first general observation about this this project, now that several weeks have gone by, is: never, ever decide to build a 3-ton clay oven on a whim. It’s just not something you want to do if you happen to be a normal, working adult human being. It was fine (and fun) on those days when I had about a dozen helpers to stomp on the clay until it turned cake-batter soft and then shape said clay, mixed with an equal part of fine sand, a couple handfuls of hay and a dash or two of ash, into lumpy clay bricks (it’s a disservice to call those moist, misshapen logs “bricks” but that’s what the Flatbread guys called them). The kids, a couple of their parents and I worked for hours at a time, forming bricks and pressing them into place over the domed sapling frame for the oven. It was taxing work and we were all drained afterwards but we finished building about half of the oven in two sunny days.
The trouble came when those same kids, and my one or two adult volunteers , disappeared—heading back to work or just about anywhere to escape their relentless taskmaster. That’s when what felt like countless days went by—ok, 10 days - when I spent 8 - 14 hours each day forming and then layering the rest of the clay bricks into place all by myself for the second half of the oven. In the end, 3 tons of bricks, as I’ve said before, formed a graceful dome over the sapling frame the kids and I had tied together. It was forearm-straining, back-breaking work.
I finally finished the oven a few weeks ago. It had to settle and cure for about a week before being fired for the first time--and then there was the week spent making three different openings until settling on an arched, brick design that allows for easy entry and exit of the pizza/bread paddle.
* * *
I’m not sure how to convey just how amazing it is except to say, we’ve probably used the oven every other night since it was completed. It’s one of the oddest, greatest things I’ve ever made, not only producing some of the finest homemade pizza with a perfectly charred, chewy crust, but the oven itself draws us outside, making dinner into a spectacle and a celebration. A couple times now the oven has generated enough heat to cook pizza in under TWO minutes, literally. I’m guessing it was close to 900 degrees when my oven thermometer broke after reaching its limit at 700.
I haven’t branched out much yet—beyond, pizza and bread, we’ve only tried Tandoori chicken and naan—but I plan to use my oven in the coming months for everything from bagels to Thanksgiving turkey. Anyone who wants to make his/her own oven and needs more detailed instructions or would just like to ask me questions about building one, please shoot me an email.
Would I do it again? You betcha.