Fired Up By Cob Ovens - Johnny Grey
16 September, 2011 at 4:49 AM
When I was driving Elizabeth David around Wales in pursuit of her researches into historic ovens for her bread book in the early 70’s, I did not appreciate her obsessive interest in how ovens worked. Now I get it, at least in relation to cob ovens. These ovens transform the flavour and texture of bread, pizza and roasted vegetables. Radiant heat given off by the clay walls cooks food quite differently from the network of heat-producing electric elements in the metal boxes we call ovens.
The process of making them was the other transformative aspect of the course we sponsored at West Lexham. This is the Norfolk-based project of landscape gardener Edmund Colville, who offers educational courses in a beautiful country house setting. Our family spent an extraordinary weekend of learning, to build from scratch a bread oven made out of cob. This was an experience of making in the round, involving head (in the planning) hands and feet (treading and kneading the clay and sand into cob) and stomach that was on the receiving end of the first baking which came out – as well as the great pleasure of thinking, talking and speculating together on a common project.
There was so much to find out. Dan Britton, an expert of building cob ovens (at festivals like Glastonbury) was course leader, who along with Viv Goodings, builder and nature lore expert, worked us through the process with quiet expertise and a sense of shared exploration and brought us together with a wonderful sense of purpose and achievement. On the second day baker in residence, Simon Woods, showed us how to make sourdough bread and use the oven effectively when it was ready.
My brother Steve provided inventive ideas for Harry my eldest son to spark off with the teachers by building in a recycled radiator for the extra bonus of free hot water once the oven is lit. Becca and all the others joined in and discovered new interests in, for example, making pottery.
My family and I are now in a rush to build a cob oven at home and also to persuade our clients, at least all those with garden terrace, to do the same. Bringing you outside, this provides a focus for an active, outdoor kitchen. Add a few outdoor beanbags and you can settle down for a long evening in your new living space with the sky as a roof and not a TV in sight.