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A Muddy Family Bake-Off

The enhanced flavour of food eaten al fresco, dappled shade, open skies… at this time of year the urge to cook in an outdoor kitchen is irresistible. First we had to build one though, bearing in mind also the marginal weather we often experience in southern England. But actually an outdoor cooking set-up adds to the appeal of garden living by facilitating warmth and companionship well after the sun goes down. I think a cooking device on its own is not enough: you need flames – a real hearth – and a place to sit or lounge. Neither should an outdoor kitchen try to be a replica of one indoors as it has a wholly different raison d’être. Keeping people outdoors requires an instinct-based approach. I keep in mind (body) warmth, comfort, eye contact with companions, some wind protection and lighting that supports intimacy as well as the various tasks needed, with a cob oven the perfect centrepiece. Big enough to cook a few pizzas, this has real presence. It is like a cross between an architectural object like a chimney-breast and a substantial piece of furniture; it can be shaped to suit the scale of your garden and the area you wish to define as your outdoor virtual kitchen room. There needs to be a table nearby. A portable fire pit is a alternative to this, though it is worth bearing in mind that pizza ovens are also perfect – once the heat dies down – for roasting vegetables, and can even be used like a hob with frying next to the door opening an option.

Design for our outdoor kitchen, with concrete counters, copper roof, artisan tile band and shell background

There are great creative opportunities with an outdoor kitchen but first you need to have a brief, your goal – what, exactly, will you use it for? I see these spaces as both sociable kitchens and outdoor living rooms, rather than barbecue areas. Our family is mostly vegetarian so barbecues have slightly less appeal anyway. We do our cooking at a low physical level, taking off the legs of the barbecue our eldest son made at school. It does a great job. We sit around it to cook as well as to linger afterwards on beanbags. These may look a bit unstylish but, seriously comfortable, they allow us to use the terrace as a table and also act as a body-shaped insulators – meaning you can out for longer.

Gus, Henry and Amelia mixing clay and sand with their feet

Last week our family made a bread/pizza oven. We chose cob (clay and sand) as the main material because we could do it ourselves, it was low cost and wholly natural – though I cheated by asking our builder to make the piers and supporting frame (later), and our countertops were cast by an artisan who does the concrete structures for our indoor kitchens. As a family we have built a cob oven before, but under supervision (see Blog Fired Up September 2011)… this time we were on our own. With eldest son Harry, an engineer, the chief technical officer, we had fun with all the stages: picking up clay from a local brickyard in our old Land Rover (it had been dug out of the ground the day before), and laying the surface with heatproof fire bricks over insulation board… meanwhile Felix and I laid out the firebrick hearth with a layer of insulation sandwiched between it and the concrete counter base.

Johnny working out sizes for the hearth – using local and high density fire bricks

After building up the inner oven dome with dry logs and kindling, we filled the gaps with sand to sculpt a smooth shape. Three layers formed the shell of the oven, the first being clay and sand mix (cob). It is a fast process as long as many hands and feet are available, so best as a group/family activity. We then lit the dry logs to cure the first layer and left it to burn out overnight.

The next day we added a layer of sand and sawdust to act as insulation, followed by another covering of sand and clay.

Three hours later came the final layer and the finishing touch: the date. The stone arch looks burnt out but it’s still there, just smoky-looking like a well-used oven.

Gus celebrates just before firing up for cooking

By 6 pm we finished building and layed the first fire for pizza-baking. Within 90 minutes a temperature of 400 degrees C had been reached. A pizza took less than two minutes to cook! The first was a little gritty and burnt of crust but with chewy dough and a delicious taste of Italy came though – fresh basil, tomato,- in seven customized home made pizzas. Afterwards we lingered round the glow of the oven, drinking red wine talking and watching the sky through the now black shadows of the trees.


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