Adventures in Flour: Wood Fired Oven Bread

Back in May, I spent a lovely 3 weeks out in Italy thoroughly enjoying myself with sea (a little cold I’ll admit but I can now inform you it was warmer than Wales in August), sun and not to put too fine a point on it, food.  It was the season for strawberries, cherries, broad beans, garlic greens, fresh peas, artichokes, asparagus and other lovely tasty goodies.
During our stay, and as it wasn’t too overbearingly hot at that time of year, I voiced the opinion that we needed to light the oven and get baking and so to our assistance came the lovely Cavuto sisters, Paola & Elodia, both of whom have wood ovens of their own in the back garden and for whom it’s nothing to just knock up 8 kilo loaves a week.
Bright and early, the ladies showed up bearing with them all the necessaries for bread production.  They get their own flour in enormous sacks from a local mill and are very picky about what to use.  It is, of course, white flour, as most bread in Italy is white, but tastier than the stuff generally available.  They brought with them a large bag of flour, a pasta pan full of rehydrated levain forming the ‘sponge’ stage of a sourdough, salt and some fresh yeast just to give the levain an extra lift.  The wooden board for breadmaking was brought out of the back room, given a good clean down and we were ready to go.
When I make bread at home, I’m usually making 1 kilo loaf maximum and frankly that can be mixed in a bowl to minimise the mess, although kneading does, of course, need to be done on the surface.  I also rarely have enough kitchen surface to make a great big mountain of flour, a huge well in the centre and then mix together.  However, if you’re making 3 big loaves like Paola showed us to do, then frankly you need space.  And if you’re going to spend the best part of an hour lighting a great big fire in your oven, you’d be daft to only make 1 loaf.  Three is the minimum that they consider worthwhile.
Into the well in the centre of our flour volcano went the levain starter and she began mixing it in by hand, from the centre, adding water as necessary.  For each kilo of flour she added a tablespoon of salt but water was simply added by the feel of the dough as was a glug or two of olive oil.  I still measure things a little obsessively when making bread so I watched with awe.  Once mixed, the dough was kneaded until elastic (again by feel where I tend to time myself still) and again it was all done by hand, with dexterity and speed and energy.  You’ll see from the photos and video clip that neither of these ladies possesses the loose upper arm we call ‘the bingo wing’.  This is why.  It is quite a workout.
The dough set aside in a warm place (didn’t need to worry too much about this as it was a warm day – oh so different to breadmaking back in the UK), we went outside to light the fire in the oven.  The ladies looked critically over the wood store and picked out logs they considered appropriate.  You want a lot of kindling and then thin logs, probably only about 4-5cm in diameter.  Locally, vine or olive prunings are considered the best kindling.  Paola & Elodia favour the olive prunings as they tend to be sprayed less than vines.  In their own non label way, they are both quite organic in their approach.  Unfortunately we had vine prunings but they passed muster and we lit the fire, feeding it with thin logs as it got going and aiming to get the temperature up to 300C.
Back in the kitchen, it was time to divide the dough out into proving baskets and to set a little aside for pizza.  The risen dough was knocked back, this time using semola flour to dust the surface.  It’s coarser in grain than the 00 flour we had used for the bread and this helps develop the crust.  We divided off enough for a couple of trays of pizza and then cut the remainder into 4 loaves which were shaped between tea towels and left to prove.  Meanwhile the pizza was spread out onto the oiled trays and given its toppings: bottled tomato passata that the ladies had made themselves from their own tomatoes the summer before, finely chopped courgette picked that morning from Paola’s garden and dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper and simply oil and salt.  All 3 were then topped with ripped up mozzarella and it was time to bring them outside and check on the oven temperature.
When it had been pronounced good to go, the ashes were all scooped out of the oven and the base of it cleaned over with a wet cloth.  Whilst this was happening, I quizzed Elodia on the nature of pizza dough.  Do you just use bread dough or is there something special you do to make pizza?  She confirmed that if you just want to do a pizza bake, then you make a moister dough and use half and half of the 00 flour and the semola.  However why, if you are baking bread, would you miss the chance to bake off some of it as a pizza just for the fun of it?  Why indeed.
Oven ready, the pizza went in and it cooked in minutes.  Meanwhile a relay team went back to the kitchen to ferry out the proven loaves and line them up outside the oven.  Pizzas emerged smelling and looking wonderful.  It was all we could do not to fall on them right away and devour them.  The loaves were transferred to the peel and deftly shunted into the oven by my father (I really haven’t quite got the knack of this entirely although I did manage one of them – I claim it’s height or my lack thereof).  We were given our instructions by the Cavuto ladies, the oven was at about 240-250C but the nature of wood ovens means that its temperature would drop gradually during the cooking.  We were to leave the bread cooking for half an hour and under no circumstances open the door to look at it during that time.  After half an hour we could check through the little viewing window and from 45 minutes onwards, open the window and check if they were ready.  An hour later, we proudly lifted them from the oven and put them aside to cool.  The verdict?  Best bread of the entire holiday.
Back home in Marple it has proved a bit of an inspiration to get baking again.  For a couple of bakes, I decided to use the yeast from the cupboard that we’d bought to make hot cross buns at Easter and that frankly needs using before it stops being active.  Then in the past fortnight, I decided to make my own levain following the instructions in the River Cottage bread book which is my bread bible.  A couple of days ago it made it into its first bake.  I won’t lie, the process of using a domestic oven is nowhere near as rewarding as the wood oven and the bread undoubtedly bakes better in the wood oven but a combination of ramping the temperature up as high as it will go and judicious lowering of it later seems to yield decent results.  And what it doesn’t have in wood-fired-ness, it makes up for in its mix of flours: spelt, rye, wholemeal and white.

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