Wood to Go

 It wasn’t even pizza that made me realise that I’d grown up in pizza ignorance.

We were in Alsace, it was the early 90s, and we were driving haphazardly down through the Route des Vins, though not in a van. We were in a red Ford Fiesta. We stopped in one of those picturesque villages and went in to an Auberge for a late lunch. Or was it an early supper? So much that I don’t remember.

There was a garden, a terrace d’été, and there was an oven.

So much, as I said, that I don’t remember. The name of the village, for one. There are a lot of picturesque villages in Alsace. A few summers ago, it felt as if we might have found it, the place. There was a wall, and behind the wall a garden, and on the wall a sign. Was this the place? It was all closed up and we haven’t been back since.

They were serving tarte flambée, aka flammkuchen, the speciality of the region. A thin dough base, a layer of crème fraiche, onions and lardons. Not necessarily any cheese, and if cheese, gruyère. But the principle was there. An outdoor woodfired oven, a peel, a slide, and oh my. An oven so hot that the tarte cooked in a minute or two. The chef pouring sweat as she met the enormous demand.

So delicious.

Later we went to a local restaurant that served pizza au feu de bois.

And you see vans driving around, woodfired ovens in the back, serving pizza on the street.

My pizza ignorance was such that I hadn’t known about the feu de bois.

Domestic solutions for the need for extreme heat include a tabletop electric oven, or the cast iron frying pan method, or the stone in the barbecue.

I’ve always done pretty well using the barbecue stone, but I’ve always preferred a gas barbecue, so no flavour was imparted by the fire.

I’ve had a hankering, a yen, for the backyard pizza oven for decades now, but various things stopped me. People build them, don’t they, but I’m not a practical man. Various shades of rustic don’t appeal to me. I’ve tried compromises, with disappointing results (you get what you pay for). I like technology. And it was when I saw the Alfa pizza oven range that I knew I’d met my match.

Franco Pepe, who runs one of the best pizza restaurants in the world, uses an Alfa oven in his “Authentica” salon, which is a private room where you and your guests can sit and watch the pizzas being made.

But they’re expensive of course, and quite large. Even the smallest of the range, until quite recently, was capable of cooking two pizzas at a time. And then, not long ago, Alfa introduced the ONE oven. A compact size, with room for only one pizza at a time, but operating on the same principle: a stone cooking floor, a fire, and an insulated dome of hammered stainless steel.

The day I ordered it, I was vaccilating between ordering an on-sale Ciao oven or the ONE. Both were a similar price, but the Ciao is over 90cm wide, 64cm deep, and weighs in at 80kg. It can do two pizzas at a time, or 4kg of bread, catering for 8-18 people. 

Which is really twice the number of people I’m ever likely to be cooking for, bar the rare summer occasion.

So I went for the ONE, which is just 73cm wide, 55cm deep, and 54kg. One pizza at a time, but still capable of reaching 500ºC in five minutes.

It’s still a beast. 54kg is the weight of a compact person, but it’s a lot less flexible and cooperative than a person, so it was a monster to manoeuvre. Skinned knuckles and cricked necks live to tell the tale. There were no assembly instructions with it, but it wasn’t too hard to work out.

You get a small short-handled peel, and a door, both of which needed their handles putting on. There’s a stainless steel firebox. Then there’s the chimney and it’s baffle at the top. All stainless steel surfaces were covered with a protective film. So it was really a matter of screwing on the handles and peeling off the film. And then lugging it about disposing of the enormous quantity of cardboard.

 I’ve got it installed, now, on a stainless steel table in the garden, and I’m hoping that this cheap made-in-China flatpack table will be able to support its weight. 

I’d reached a certain level in my pizza making, but now it’s time for a few steps backwards before I can go forward again.

I fired it up on the first night we had without rain to experiment. The oven reached 500º with astonishing speed. But of course, the air temperature is one thing; the floor temperature is what you need to worry about. I’ve had many a disappointing soggy pizza base in restaurants that hadn’t let their oven floor get hot enough.

I’m not sure about the supplied firebox. They don’t seem to use them in the larger ovens, and surely the floor would get hotter with the coals on top of it? They don’t even use it in the illustrations in the User Manual. I may need to experiment with both ways. The firebox needs to be moved to one side once lit, but it still gets in the way a bit when you’re sliding pizza in and out.

The other thing I’m ignorant about is the door. Does it go on while the pizza is cooking? Or does it help the oven stay hot? Or what? I think maybe it depends what you’re cooking, but I think better pizza results are achieved with the door off. More experimentation needed. Certainly the manual indicates that you regulate temperature with the door. New skills to learn.

So that first night, not knowing what I was doing, I made a few mistakes. The oven floor definitely wasn’t hot enough. Putting the door on probably didn’t help. I found the turn halfway through cooking difficult (at this stage I didn’t have the work table,  so I was having to lean down, which was awkward). One of the pizzas had a base stretched to transparency, which did not survive the process. They all looked okay, but I’d have complained if they were served to me in a restaurant.

The next thing I tried was peshwari naan, and this went really well. I let the oven get hotter, left the door off, and was working at the proper height. Sliding the first naan in, with trepidation, I worried again that it wasn’t hot enough. Nothing much  seemed to be happening. Then, after about 30 seconds, the butter on the top started to sizzle. And then the air bubbles appeared. The Eagle had landed. The second naan was even more exciting, blowing up like a puffball before my eyes.

The next thing I tried was some salmon fillets, which I cooked in lemon and butter with salt and pepper, all in a foil tray in the wood oven. Not bad.

All of which was just the build up to the first Saturday night pizza of the new era. I hoped I’d made my mistakes and that this would be my best pizza ever, but no. Lots of things went against me, including not knowing how to use the oven properly.

But also, in these lockdown times, I’m struggling to find my usual dried yeast. The one I’m using for the duration has been giving disappointing results for weeks now. My crusts have been sub-par for a couple of months.

And I think I need to get myself an infrared thermometer to measure the oven floor temperature, because it’s clearly not hot enough. The success of the naan misled me, but naan doesn’t have a topping (it does have a filling though), and while my pizza tops are getting thoroughly cooked, the dough underneath them remains nasty. I made four pizza yesterday, and maybe the 3rd and 4th were okay (I’ve had worse).

Today I’m going to try to make a loaf of bread. If it stops raining.

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