Wood fired cooking is being celebrated all across our country. Enjoying what some would call a revival, more and more we are seeing wood fired ovens at restaurants in posh urban settings, at farmers markets, and on mobile food trucks at all types of events; all tapping into what seems to be an insatiable market. As much as indoor wood ovens may seem like a fad in the world of fine dining, there is a deeper genetic reason why we gravitate towards the fire.
Open fired cooking has been woven into the fabric of human existence where stories have been passed down through the generations around the hearth, communing with meals; all with the smell of fire somewhere in the background. This smell continues to influence us modern humans triggering our biological memory that associates the smell with food, warmth and community. When we see a chef tending to nature's most transformative element, we unconsciously become hypnotized by the crackle of the fire while we yearn for the community connection the flames have always epitomized; the food takes on the fire's allure and while we taste the raw elements in each delicious bite, we unconsciously connect to our wild human ancestry.
Our culture has been on a fast track towards distancing us from the elements that make up our natural physical world. We are becoming more and more domesticated, technologically reliant, and disconnected from nature living a life indoors. Yet every time I am at a market with a wood-fired pizza oven and I see that long line of people waiting, waiting not only for a pizza but for that sacred connection that is typically missing from our lives, a sense of connection around that hearth and being nourished by much more than the calories we consume.
However, all wood-fired ovens are not created equally. Now, I am not trying to burst the bubble of romanticism into which I have just inserted these fire-powered culinary experiences--but ovens seen at these markets and restaurants are often mistaken to be earthen ovens because of their stucco finishes, when in fact they are masonry ovens built with cement and steel reinforcement. Sadly, it's rare to find an earthen oven (clay) being used commercially to cook food for the masses. I think the major reason behind this is because clay is a highly dynamic earth element that is hard to standardize. The organic nature of clay requires that the chef create a real relationship with the oven. If you want an oven to respond the same way, every time you fire it (or "turn it on"), then your best bet is an insulated steel box with heat controlled by natural gas. "Building and baking in a wood fired earthen oven restores beauty, savor, and real bread and pizza by restoring the essentials: earth, water, air, and fire. And it requires you to participate. In most modern kitchens, you don't have to feel the heat, watch the fire, or grow the ingredients. Similarly, bread machines and commercial yeast require little or no attention. They take care of themselves. But if you don't have to pay attention, you can't participate, and if you don't participate, you can't know." (Kiko Denzer).
I want to know. And its this reason why both Peaches and I love building and cooking in earthen ovens. Earthen ovens use all three kinds of heat transfer: conduction, convection and radiation. Conduction being the direct contact the food has with the hot oven floor; convection being the natural air movement that is created by oxygen cycling in to feed the fire. Lastly, and perhaps most worthy of mysticism, radiant heat--sun energy that traveled the vast distance to Earth, to grow the trees that made the fire that heat the clay chamber of the oven, until it radiates back into the food placed inside. Imagine now the space and time that this radiant energy travelled to cook the food within your oven's earthen walls-- that particular heat is so specific to the moment you are using it that it can never be exactly duplicated, and the resulting flavor is rich, complex, and uniquely timeless.
"Radiant heat is fundamental to our very existence- from it we have sun and seasons, photosynthesis and weather, food and shelter, and of course, wheat and bread."