Building our own clay oven was far and away one of the most satisfying things I have done. It sounds strange perhaps, but building is a very fundamental act. It teaches you a skill that meets a primal need to find or create shelter for you and yours, albeit on a very small scale in this case. There is also a satisfying echo of the food; the handling and working of the clay is reminiscent of the handling and working of the dough that will be cooked in the finished oven.
Before I started, I poured over Kiko Denzer’s wonderful “build your own earth oven” (click here) at night for about 5 months before taking the plunge. I read and re-read until I was dreaming about ovens, all the while planning, choosing, and, importantly, finding sources of the necessary materials.
First of all came the brick base, to raise the oven to a comfortable working height, and away from the damp ground. Bricks we had, and builder’s sand left over from green-house repairs. Cement we bought, and the infill was a combination of rubble from around the place, and left-overs from path making. Bricklaying is quite soothing work, when you can pick your days and you don’t have to go too fast. My only piece of advice is wear gloves. I didn’t, and pretty much had no finger-tips for about 3 weeks. Nasty stuff cement, like I imagine an acid-peel would, be but worse.
Then it was time for the fun bit, the clay. It was thoroughly sticky, thoroughly hands on, and a wonderful way to spend a couple of warm weekends in spring. Insulation was in the form of old wine bottles we’d saved up, and wood chippings from the cabinet maker in the next village, all coated in a slurry that was immense fun to work with. From the insulation layer I built up to the oven floor, clay topped with fire bricks, and on to the dome of the oven itself.
Stage one for the dome was to build a sort of sand mould, around which the oven was built, and which was scraped out when the job was done. It looked quite beautiful, a big pregnant belly of a mound rising up from the oven floor. Then came the door arch, and the clay oven wall.
Mixing the clay, sand and water was a very physical, whole family experience. Following the advice from Kiko’s book, we tipped the lot on to a tarp and trampled it into a homogenous mud. Making the walls was a bigger job than I’d realised. It should be done in one go, so dusk found me frantically slapping on clay around a not-so-rapidly disappearing sand dome in an attempt to get a layer complete, as the boys conked out and went to bed.
A fat layer of wood-chip and slurry insulation later, the oven was ready for its final protective coating of mud-mix and fresh cow manure! (Fresh is important for the enzymes apparently.) It’s a surprisingly satisfying blend to work with, feeling a little like dense cream cheese. The smell is not like cream cheese however, and it lingers, even if you wear gloves and overalls. The manure was courtesy of the same guy that built our tree-house. In a relationship punctuated by strange requests, a big sack of really fresh cow-shit might just be the strangest request I’ve made to him, so far.