Shem's Blog | Creative solutions | Dyfi Mountain Biking | Surf | Design | Beer Shem's blog!: Pizza, mountain bikes and building your own clay oven

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Pizza, mountain bikes and building your own clay oven

If theres two things I feel passionately about its Pizza and bikes. Ideally not at the same time, but theres nothing like a good pizza to refuel after a solid ride, or to just chat over legendary days on the trail with other biking buddies.

Yesterday was a day of epic proportions for both of these two key ingredients!

After a day sat at the desk, I put out a last minute message on the Dyfi mtb facebook page and managed to gather 3 buddies for an after work ride. The sun was out, the trails where dusty and with it being Machynlleth's epic Cli-Machx, smiles per miles were guaranteed! :-D

The view from 'flap jack corner' at the start of the major down hill section was exceptional. We're so used to looking down at Corris in the rain, or more realistically just cloud; that having a view like this and the summit of Cadair Idris across from us was a real treat.

Its days like this that really make me wonder why I dont live somewhere warmer and drier!

So after an epic session up the mountain and the usual bike based banter, I headed home and decided that tonight would be the night to test run the new home made clay pizza oven.

The Pizza oven!

As a major fan of all things Pizza I've always made my own from scratch, but have always been frustrated by conventional ovens not being hot enough to cook a 'real pizza!' A couple of years ago, whilst watching River Cottage, my food hero Hugh, featured a series where he made a pizza oven using clay and sand and very little else; Id planned on doing exactly this...for about 2 years now, when all of a sudden about a week ago I thought, "today is the day!"
I happened to be spending a day with my niece, (Misha). She's always up for something wacky and fun, so I knew she'd be keen to help her favourite uncle out for this mission!

The build

So, heres how it goes...

I started off by levelling the land at the spot I wanted the oven, and laid six 9" blocks on their side. 


On top of the concrete blocks I then laid eight heat blocks, recycled from a storage heater. At this point I should mention that my budget for building my dream pizza oven was exactly diddly, zero, squat! Call it what you want £0, Nothing. 

Next up, I needed sand and clay. I had a friend that wanted some sharp sand clearing from his garden, so off we went to fetch the sand.  This was the easy task, next up was the clay. I knew of a especially clay based river bank not far from our home, so it was off down the river with bags and a little shovel to fetch the clay. Digging from down in a river and filling bags of clay isn't the easiest task, but it was sunny and I had good company, and we got our clay. :-D

So, next up, you need to create a mould of the shape you want your oven to be. Sharp sand is easy to shape especially when its wet,  and we soon had our form ready for covering. Remember this form will be the internal measurements of your oven, so ensure the size is right for your needs. I was aiming to be able to cook one 9" pizza at a time, or possibly a slightly elongated pizza. 

Once shaped you will need to cover the sand in a few sheets of wet newspaper, to a) help stop any movement and b) to help hollow out the shell once dried. 

The fun part

You now need to mix the clay with the sand, I used a 50-50 ratio for this. We did this by getting a plastic sheet on the floor, adding both components and then treading it in with our bare feet. This is great fun for all the family, kids love it, so do adults :D and it really cant go wrong. Keep mixing until you have a nice doughy clay mixture. I used river clay which was already more than wet enough. If you have drier clay you will need ot add water to the mix here as well. Another optional is to add chopped hay to the composite mixture you now have to help bond and insulate the mix. I didn't bother with this, but if I build another I probably will. 

With our mix now ready we set to adding approximately four inches of clay around the sand mould. Ensuring that all your hand fulls of sand are well joined was essential and once we had the whole oven covered, we then used wet hands to further obtain a smooth finish, by simply rubbing in a circular motion. 
Cut the door   You'll now need to cut in a door. There are a couple of considerations here. Obviously you need the door to be wide enough to fit in your desired pizza, and secondly the height of the door affects the draw and chimney function of the oven. A good guide to the height of the door is 60% of the total height of the inside of the oven. 
I chose to add a pattern to the outside of the oven, as you can see here...

Retrospectively I wish I hadn't added patterns, purely because I'm told most clay ovens, this one included, will crack and need filling in places. I'd hoped to save the door when I pulled it out, but this wasn't possible. 

Patience! With your oven now made, you now need to do nothing, for a good few days! All I wanted to do was hollow it out and get cooking, but you really do need to step away, cover it if it rains and just let it settle. I left it 4 days before hollowing out the sand, very slowly, ensuring the clay had dried just enough to support itself. Once hollow I allowed it to air dry for another couple of days before slowly starting to light very small fires to begin the true drying process. 

Back now to ending my epic bike ride up the Dyfi forest and having that after ride hunger that only a quality pizza and ideally a refreshing real ale or premium continental Larger can satisfy. I'd cut some well dried ash into suitably sized kindling and logs earlier that day, and 10 days after initially building the oven its first real fire was lit! I kept adding logs and stoking it up and about 90 mins in decided the pile of now red hot embers where hot enough to start cooking. I split the pile of glowing embers down the middle and pushed them equaly left and right to each side allowing a snug space in the centre of the oven for the pizza's to sit. 

Here it is in action

As it was the first session I wanted the heat blocks to clean up a bit in the heat, so I used a pottery oven dish to cook the pizzas on, (next time they'll be directly on the bricks). 
Within a minute I realised just how quickly the pizza's would be cooking, I quickly commandeered the kids to start making pizza's while I checked on progress and ran pizza's to and from the kitchen. Cooking time was around 2.5-3 minutes each and I'm guessing the oven heat was around 275-300 degrees. 

I wont go into the perfect base, the light and crispy perfectly cooked dough or feeding a few of my neighbours before driving a pizza 4 miles to my niece that spent the day helping me make the oven.  But it was a success, perfect pizza cooked in a home made clay oven built purely from left overs and natural resources. I probably shouldn't have eaten three whole pizza's to myself, but I was excited and they kept on cooking and getting better and better, so I just couldn't resist. 

Next time I fire it up, (which will be soon), Ill take some video footage of stages and probably a few more photos of pizza's with slightly more exciting ingredients than just cheese and tomato, but really if you've ever thought of doing this or just love real stone baked pizza's go out, get some free or very cheap materials and make your own clay oven. You wont regret it! 

Shem ap Geraint is a leading authority in all things Pizza and has researched this area for over 2 decades. ;-) Thanks for reading x 

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