How to take outdoor summer dining to the next level, and still keep your wife happy
My wife’s mouth dropped open. Her face went pale. She looked at me as if I were nuts.
I had just told her that I wanted to build a brick, wood-fired oven in our backyard. Three thousand pounds of clay, mortar and concrete, proposed to displace a section of her beloved vegetable garden.
“We already have an oven,” she said. “Why do we need another?”
She wasn’t getting the picture. A traditional brick oven has several advantages over our 50-year-old Rambler of a kitchen oven. The masonry interior of a brick oven produces intense heat in three different ways (radiant, conduction and convection), delivering crusty loaves of bread, incomparable pizzas and savory roasts.
The ovens have been used for centuries in France, Italy and other nations. Now, some think that the French are arrogant snobs and the Italians hopelessly disorganized, but I personally admire both cultures for their approach to food, wine, and the good life.
And, believe it or not, the temperature of Sacramento’s warm summer evenings is similar to Tuscany and the Rhone Valley. Hanging out on a sultry evening by the brick oven, wine glass nearby, leisurely tossing pizzas—all of this had considerable appeal to me.
But first I would have to sell the concept to my wife, who is not afraid to exercise her veto authority. I knew from long experience that she would be concerned about the cost. I chatted with Alan Scott, a brick oven designer from Petaluma. He said that his oven plans were $100 (the plans have since been published in a book, The Bread Builders) and it would cost another $500 for construction materials. Alan said that building an oven wasn’t very difficult and he encouraged me to consider doing it myself.
Six hundred dollars? Sounded cheaper than a fancy gas barbecue. I could sell that to her.
So, I described for my wife the crusty pizza and breads, the wine and the summer evenings out in the backyard. I waxed sentimental about how our young boys would have fond memories of their backyard meals by that oven.
“Think about it,” I said. “Birthday parties, holidays, weddings … ”
She cut me off. “How much will it cost?”
“Only $600,” I answered, adding confidently, “I can build it myself.”
After getting a commitment that I would forego holiday and birthday gifts for a while (marriage is an endless negotiation), she gave me the green light.
The mutating project
Once I got the oven plans, it quickly became clear that I was not going to build this thing myself. I had no experience with masonry. Plumb lines, levels, rebar, firebrick—I was clueless. I pictured myself laboring for countless weekends while my wife was stuck with all of the household duties. Then I would wind up hiring a professional to demolish whatever I had created so that the job could be done properly.
I discreetly began calling masons to bid on the project. Bids started coming in at $5,000.
Yikes! I quickly shelved the project, and wondered how I could get the cost down.
Instead, as time went by, the cost escalated. First, I decided that an elevated, cooking fireplace, similar to the fireplaces found in old European kitchens, would be a nice amenity sitting next to the oven. Then I figured that counter space would be appropriate. Of course, it would be handy to have a sink, patio and wood storage. Before long, my $600 brick oven had evolved into a Paragary’s kitchen.
As years slowly slipped by, I revealed to my wife that the project needed to be expanded. She looked worried, but it had been so long since I had first proposed the oven that she figured I was unlikely to ever get the project off the ground.
I was beginning to think the same thing myself. I was also starting to miss my birthday presents.
Finally, five long years after getting the green light, I had saved enough money from a side business to call masons again. I found Peter Dame, an engaging character from upstate New York who had inexplicably landed in Davis 20 years ago. Peter was the only bricklayer in the area that I could find who actually had built a couple of brick ovens, including a good-sized beast at Davis’ excellent Village Bakery.
Peter got the job, and I got the kitchen: 300 square feet with a brick oven, elevated cooking fireplace, 25 feet of counter space, wood storage, copper sink and flagstone patio. I’d rather not dwell on the cost. Let’s just say that the price was less than an indoor kitchen. Financial considerations had begun to fade, anyway, as my wife began to understand that our family meals would soon get a significant upgrade.
Trial & error
A wood-fired kitchen comes with a few inconveniences. The first morning I fired up the oven, somebody started banging on my back door. I opened up to find a truckload of city firefighters in full battle gear. Neighbors had reported seeing smoke billowing from behind my garage. I showed the firefighters the oven, which they studied with professional fascination.
Another inconvenience is that the kitchen does not have knobs, thermostats or electronic ignition. The oven requires a three- or four-hour firing. How do you know when the oven is at the right temperature? You stick your arm in the white-hot masonry chamber and see if your hair burns off. Another trick is to toss a little flour on the hearth and see how fast it browns. This primitive style of baking takes some getting used to, and my initial results were uneven. I turned out loaves of bread that were pale and dense, and produced other loaves that were huge lumps of carbon. I began buying flour in 50-pound sacks.
Wood can be a time-consuming issue. I fire the oven with scrap lumber, since any coals are raked out prior to baking. I started showing up at the city neighborhood cleanups, rifling curbside junk piles in a search for wooden pallets, discarded shelves and broken-up fences. Many spouses would be embarrassed by such scavenging, but my thrifty wife approved of my industrious approach to cost-cutting.
So was the ordeal worth it? You bet it was.
The original concept—spending warm Sacramento nights by the oven, eating great food, sipping wine, enjoying the company of family and friends—all of this has come to pass.
I have had eight months to become accustomed to a retro style of cooking.
The oven stays hot for hours after being properly fired. I usually start by baking pizza when the oven is hottest. As the oven cools, I will bake focaccia, then several two-pound loaves of bread. Further cooling of the oven makes it ready for roasting meats and vegetables. At its lowest temperatures the oven works well for making oven-dried tomatoes or croutons.
I rank my pizza among the best I have ever had. My crusty sourdough breads are beginning to rival the artisan bakeries.
I have found that the metal grill from my now-neglected gas barbecue works quite nicely in the cooking fireplace for grilling meat and vegetables. I also use a cast-iron mechanical rotisserie that I had shipped from a manufacturer in Italy (check it out at www.fufgirarrosti.it). I crank the handle about 30 revolutions, which sets the brass gears in motion, rotating up to 20 pounds of meat on the spit in front of the live fire. A little bell rings when it is time to crank again.
I’m looking forward to many summer nights filled with the sound of that bell.
“You know, this kitchen was worth it,” said my wife the other night as our family munched pizza under the stars.
Ah, yes. Marital harmony is a bargain at any price.