It wasn't that long ago that Claudine and I set out to build a clay oven in her backyard. You can read about that here.
Nearly 15 days after we completed the oven, we determined that it was finally dry enough to fire it up without fear of explosion. The cob mix (hay/clay) we made was a little wet and probably held things up the longest. Well, that and the cold, wet weather.
We stuffed the oven full of hay, newspapers, and sticks. Claudine, who loves starting fires, had the honor of taking her lighter, and then a burning stick, to the waiting pyre:
Within minutes we had a potent, smoky, choking fire going. Ash started coating the white clay.
Even Claudine, who loves lighting fires, became a bit overwhelmed by the smoke.
At least the oven was behaving properly - it took in cool air from the bottom and vented through the chimney and the top of the oven opening.
The fire really started to go:
It was quite beautiful. In the language of that annoying "California Personality Index" I had to take when a major retailer recruited me (yes, they make you take personality tests), "I am fascinated by fire" (I believe that means, in the context of personality tests, that I like abstract thinking. Can't it just mean I like fire?).
Steam rose from the clay oven as the fire burned. Eventually the wooden frame we built from saplings caught fire, crackling and snapping as it burned.
The mouth of the oven blackened with soot. Cracks began to form on the clay. Some clay even chipped as it hardened.
For three hours I fed the fire with logs, twigs, branches, paper, hay, and, finally, charcoal.
As the oven heated, it hardened up, making a satisfying thud as we tapped it with our knuckles. You can see it drying in this picture, though rather unevenly:
The frame burned out perfectly. Unfortunately, it also cracked all around the mouth of the oven:
One of the biggest problems with the oven was the platform. Because we used a moisture-retaining gravel instead of cement, there was water present when we fired up the oven. And as it heated, the oven floor exploded. Ooops. Live and learn. And the charcoal? Created a fire that was just a little too hot for the still-moist clay. The oven continued to spit clay and crack its surface.
As the fire died down, we decided to bake a test batch of flatbread in the oven. Claudine whipped up an oat and wheat bread and we let it rise next to the oven. We threw a cast iron tray into the oven and baked off the bread. It was smoky, golden and delicious.
The next morning Claudine checked the oven and sent me a photo from her phone. Cracked. Intact but very cracked. Definitely not suitable for baking bread. Pizza, roasts - sure. But no bread.
Although it is still functional, it isn't quite what we had hoped for. Next spring we'll have the opportunity to do it again - Claudine is planning to move and she'll need a new oven at her new place. Next time we'll do things differently. Very differently.