For the poet and mystic in us, building an oven, gathering the wood, tending the fire and baking in this way connects us experientially with one of our oldest civilized rituals. “Remembering” our past … helps us to momentarily touch base with our deeper selves and awaken briefly to our place in the broader web of the biosphere that supports and sustains all life.— Alan Scott, 1936-2009, oven builder, baking traditionalist
The virtues of Mildrith are no secret to readers of these pages. She’s the wood-fired oven behind the Happy Monk Baking Company. But many — bakers and customers alike — are a little skeptical about my preference for wood fire rather than a conventional electric oven to bake my bread.
Baker’s hours are long and hard enough! Rising in the dead of night to bake can’t be avoided. So why add extra hours and expense, ordering firewood, stacking it, chopping it, setting the fire and tending it to get the oven to baking temperature. Wouldn’t it be easier to just switch on a deck oven and twist the dial to 450ºF?
Of course it would.
It’s true I’m indulging myself, baking with Mildrith. I enjoy handling the wood and firing the oven. I love all the steps. I love keeping a close eye on the temperature, raking out the coals, sweeping the hearth floor, then closing the oven for a while to let the surface temperatures equalize.
Loading the bread is panic! Fitting 10 or 11 loaves without losing too much heat means working fast and efficiently. There can be no distractions as you flour the peel, dump the dough from the proofing basket, score it, open the door, shoot the peel inside, slide the dough in place, mark a spot for the next load of dough, shut the door. Repeat. Then, when it’s all loaded, sealing off the oven with a heat plug draped with a wet towel to inject a little steam inside the baking chamber.
Waves of Radiant Wood-Fired Heat
And there is the supreme pleasure of opening the oven 20 minutes later to see those loaves fully puffed up and browned, the waves of heat carrying the delicious aroma of baked bread. No heating elements, no convection fans humming away, just a bold radiant heat that you’ve patiently built up over several hours.
Those loaves may need a few more minutes to finish. They may need to be moved around to prevent scorching or to find more caramelization of the crust. So you leave them for a few more minutes while you line up the dough baskets for the next oven load.
Mildrith can do three to four loads on one firing. As a wood-fired oven, she’s turning out to be pretty efficient.
“Wood-fired” is The Happy Monk aesthetic. To me, there is a continuous line between wild-yeasted sourdough and baking in a clay oven, heated by a roaring fire. It is a primal connection. It is the way bread was made for centuries. It is the staff of life, made of grain harvested from the fields, milled into flour, mixed with water and leaven and baked with fire. Bread is central in all cultures and has been made the same way, everywhere. Flour, water, leaven, salt and fire. It is part of the human experience.
The Ancient Connection
Delicious, wild-yeasted bread can indeed come from an electric oven. It may look different. It will probably taste the same as a wood-fired loaf. But eating a wood-fired loaf is a different experience … unquantifiable, important. I’ve spoken with many bakers who use electric ovens. Many of them harbour a desire to build a clay or masonry oven at home to make their own bread. They know that fire may not make better bread, but they understand the ancient connection, and that makes all the difference to me.
Fry’s Bakery, Wildfire Bakery, and Fol Epi ‒ all in Victoria ‒ use wood-fired ovens, and as a bread enthusiast, I have become spoiled with the choices. These companies were part of my inspiration for starting the Happy Monk Baking Company here on Pender Island.
There is nothing quite like watching these massive ovens firing up, heat blazing across the bakery. Or seeing dozens of beautiful loaves being pulled from the oven on long peels, baked with radiant heat. These are masonry ovens that will stay hot for days and weeks. These are loaves that are connected to the distant past, the Indian tandoor, the brick ovens of Pompei, the clay bread ovens of the Quebec settlers.
I am still learning the ways of Mildrith, how she holds her heat, how she likes to be tended. I am hungry for knowledge about using my oven to make bread in that ancient connection. And I couldn’t be more pleased to be heading in that direction.