When I was driving my aunt Elizabeth David around Wales in pursuit of her research into historic ovens for her bread book in the early 1970s, I did not appreciate her obsessive interest in how ovens worked. Now I understand, at least in relation to cob ovens. These ovens miraculously transform the flavour and texture of bread, pizza and roasted vegetables. Radiant heat given off by the clay walls cooks food quite differently from the network of heat-producing electric elements in the metal boxes that are modern ovens.
The process of making them was the other transformative aspect of the cob oven course we sponsored at West Lexham in eastern England last weekend. It was held at the Norfolk country house of landscape gardener Edmund Colville, who offers educational courses in a beautiful setting. Our family spent an extraordinary weekend of learning how to build a bread oven made out of cob from scratch. This was an experience of making, involving head (in the planning), hands and feet (treading and kneading the clay and sand into cob) and stomach (on the receiving end of the first baking) – as well as the great pleasure of working together on a common project.
There was so much to discover. Dan Britton, an expert of building cob ovens at festivals like Glastonbury was course leader, who along with Viv Goodings, builder and nature lore expert, guided us through the process with quiet expertise and created a sense of shared exploration. On the second day, resident baker Simon Blackwell showed us how to make sourdough bread.
Pictures tell the story best. My brother Steve and eldest son Harry sparked off inventive ideas like building in a recycled radiator for the extra bonus of free hot water once the oven is lit. My wife Becca and the others joined in and discovered new interests in, for example, making pottery.
My family and I are now in a rush to build a cob oven at home and also to persuade our clients, at least all those with garden terraces, to do the same. A feature like this is a perfect focus for an active, outdoor kitchen. Add a few outdoor beanbags and you can settle down for a long evening in your new living space with the sky as a roof and not a TV in sight.