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Outdoor ovens a unique experience in for summertime cooking

John Scott, of Woodville, built a cob oven in his backyard from potter’s clay, straw and bricks. It is part of his plan to better understand and appreciate where his food comes from. Here, his daughter tends to the fire.
John Scott, of Woodville, built a cob oven in his backyard from potter’s clay, straw and bricks. It is part of his plan to better understand and appreciate where his food comes from. Here, his daughter tends to the fire. - Contributed

“Outdoor ovens get people outside instead of watching Netflix, they encourage wellness for all, and provide all the benefits of nature like fresh air, vitamin D,” says Duncan Ebata, co-founder of the Front Street Community Oven project in Wolfville, N.S.

The concept of a wood-fired oven, traditionally used for communally baking bread, can be traced back to ancient Greece. Centuries-old stone ovens can be found in Europe, some of which are still in use as communal ovens, says Harrison Wright, of Woodville, N.S.

“I once travelled to an old oven at the top of a mountain while in Italy,” says Wright. “It wasn't tourist season, so we were the only customers, and they cooked a pizza while we waited.”

Although it was very simple - dough, tomato sauce, some oil and rosemary - Wright says it was the best pizza he’d ever tasted.  

Wanting to recreate it back home, Wright and his wife Aimee Hare set out to construct their own masonry oven - which, after three years, is functional but still a work in progress.

Wright started building in his spare time with just an idea in his head. He excavated a large hole by hand about four feet deep, knowing the oven would weigh several tonnes once complete, and filled it with field stone. He then built a column in the middle out of more stones and concrete. It was around this column that he constructed the base of the pizza oven.

Throughout the process, Hare says her husband added personal touches to the construction, including adding slate and a sea glass tree to the décor.

“He asked some of my family and friends in Cape Breton to bring him rocks from around the island to add to the oven’s story,” says Hare, with other stones coming from Clare and Italy.

When it was finally ready, the first meal they cooked was a cheese pizza, with rave reviews coming from the whole family. Now, the family hosts regular pizza parties and uses it for baking all sorts of bread.

Backyard cooking

Woodville resident John Scott has also been working on what he calls a ‘large culinary project’ in his backyard as part of an effort to be more fully conscious of the food his family eats. Along with his gardens and raising animals for consumption, Scott and his wife Sarah have constructed a cob oven.

While the cooking surface is fire brick, the rest is made from clay, sand and straw. Using PDFs, books and YouTube videos, the Scotts found the build was more challenging than they had anticipated. The first challenge was finding clay.

“Most people in our area who think they have clay heavy soil in fact have silt heavy soil, which is very different,” says Scott, noting they ended up using waste clay from a potter Sarah knew.

Like Hare, the first meal they cooked was pizza, and to Scott, it tasted like accomplishment.

“I don’t actually think they turned out very well, having not learned anything about firing the oven, but it didn’t matter,” says Scott. “They were totally edible, and we were together around the table.”

Paul Hutten, of Kentville, N.S. repurposed an old 50-gallon coconut oil barrel into a wood-fired oven – a project that cost $40.

Hutten became interested in outdoor ovens after reading an article years ago about communal ovens being built in a few municipal parks in Ontario.

“I loved the idea of people coming together to bake and eat in a shared space and thought I should start researching and experimenting with an oven of my own,” says Hutten.

Hutten began by burning a wood fire in the barrel for quite a while to get rid of the off gassing from the exterior and interior coating. He then placed it on its side on a stand he built, with a door on the front, wood and air access on the bottom left, and a chimney on the upper right. The bricks are held by a rack in the center of the oven.

Hutten’s first meal was also pizza.

“The first attempt was way too hot, and the pizza burned completely black in about three minutes,” says Hutten. “As I learned to control the heat, I've been able to make pizzas that are slightly blackened with a noticeable smoke undertone.”

His family mostly supports these cooking endeavours, he jokes.

Paul Hutten says an easy way to create a woodfired oven is to hack your own barbecue with firewood and six bricks, upon which you can directly cook pizzas.
Paul Hutten says an easy way to create a woodfired oven is to hack your own barbecue with firewood and six bricks, upon which you can directly cook pizzas.

Community ovens

For those who want to enjoy an outdoor oven but do not have the space or desire to have one of their own, they can still participate by finding a community one in parks like in Dartmouth, N.S. or soon to be Wolfville, N.S.

Ebata grew up with wood-fired ovens and the magic of the culture of eating and gathering that comes with it, and wanted to share that feeling in Wolfville. He helped create the Front Street Community Oven project, with the aim of creating a public outdoor community kitchen and recreation space centred around food and human connection where people regularly eat and gather.

“Right from the beginning, we talked to many community and business stakeholders in Wolfville and all were very supportive,” says Ebata, noting the town council voted unanimously in favour of the idea.

Under the direction of the main builder, Travis Mills, the oven is a combination of screw piles from Posttech, wood beams from Levy's Mill, fire bricks and chimney from Home Hardware, and recycled red bricks donated from Mills himself.

The Wolfville oven will be open until October 2019, with at least one free open oven day per week where the oven is running for four to six hours at a regularly scheduled time. The oven will also be available to book for events and gatherings.

However you do it, Hutten says, cooking on a wood fire is an entirely unique cooking and eating experiment.

Paul Hutten says an easy way to create a woodfired oven is to hack your own barbecue with firewood and six bricks, upon which you can directly cook pizzas.
Paul Hutten says an easy way to create a woodfired oven is to hack your own barbecue with firewood and six bricks, upon which you can directly cook pizzas.

Tips to build your own

  • Do your research
  • Start collecting materials as you find them
  • Decide what you want from the start – a piece of art or something that’s simply functional
  • Build small – the larger the oven, the more time it takes to fire and the less likely you’ll be to use it
  • Have patience – it can take most of a day to bring the oven up to temperature and to perfect cooking conditions
  • Check with your community’s planning department around any permits that may be required
  • Go online: Learn more about the Wolfville community oven project at http://frontstreetoven.ca/

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