|Skids and skids of block and firebrick and facade brick arrived on truck after truck.
Load after load of brick sand was piled.
Bag after bag of ordinary Type S cement was opened.
Far too many expensive bags of LaFarge Fondue refractory cement were ordered.
Form wood, stakes, plywood, mesh, rebar, shovels, mason's tools, drills, junk littered the large yard of our 1856 Carpenter-Gothic house in Prince Albert.
The crew of craftsmen assembled, the friends who agreed to help, all scratched their heads: "What in the world are they building?"
Ready, Set, Wait
The ten inch, reinforced slab was poured in late April.
Beginning in early May, the cinder block base for the hearth was laid, then the six-inch thick insulating lower hearth was poured. Once it was dry, a six inch thick, heavily reinforced refractory concrete slab was poured on top of it. That cured for two weeks, then the firebrick hearth was laid on top of that. The firebricks were stood on edge for even more thickness. The completed three-part hearth sandwich measured fifteen inches thick. Why so thick? Read on.
In June, the walls and dome of the oven were constructed from more firebrick. The mortar was made from LaFarge Fondue refractory cement and fine brick sand. Tools and hands were dyed black from it. More waiting. By mid-month, the oven interior was cured enough so eight inches of reinforced refractory concrete could be poured on top of the dome and walls to act as a massive sink for heat retention. Four high-tech thermocouples were positioned in various parts of the oven to monitor temperatures.
More waiting for the cladding to cure. At the end of June, a four-inch cinderblock enclosure was built around the oven proper to a height eighteen inches above the dome and cladding. By July, after a space heater was run inside the oven for two weeks and a series of very small fires were built daily, the cladding was cured. Twenty large bags of vermiculite (expanded shale) insulation were poured into the enclosure to keep the heat where it belongs: inside the oven. Metal studs were installed to span the enclosure, and fireproof cementboard laid over the studs. Above the studs, wooden sills were bolted to the block enclosure to anchor the roof rafters.
Mid-August, and the Georgetown facade bricks were laid. This style and colour of brick was chosen to complement the historical yellow brick used in 19th century buildings in rural Ontario. A box was positioned to the right of the oven door to house another piece of technology, a digital thermometer to display the thermocouple readings. Once the facade bricks reached the proper height, the chimney was built and lined with flue tiles.
Everything was left to cure further until September was over. In October, the roof was built and the cedar shingles went on.
During these waiting periods, head baker Jim Wills made the necessary oven tools, including peels of various sizes, an ash rake, mop, oven door and draft door. Oh, yes, and built a massive woodshed, sixteen feet long, eight feet high and four feet deep. And, oh, yes, gathered and split and stacked piles and piles of maple and birch and ash and pine and cedar firewood to cure until winter. The chainsaw coated the construction site with a blanket of aromatic wood chips, some piled for later use as smoker fuel. When time allowed, a purpose-designed bake table was begun in the woodworking shop.
By November, baking began. A wood-fired oven bakes with retained heat, and the fire is built directly on the hearth bricks. Unlike a pizza oven, however, the coals and ash are raked out, then the hearth is cleaned before the breads are loaded. Our oven is termed high-mass, because all the various masonry parts were deliberately made very, very thick. In practice, this means our oven will store large amounts of heat from a single firing, allowing the baker to produce many "bakes" of different types of bread over a single day without refiring the oven.
All our hearts beat very fast the first time the hearth bricks reached nearly 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, but no cracks appeared. The job was done right; heartbeats slowed. The ash was raked out, the hearth cleaned and the oven was left to equalize for two hours until the air temperature inside the oven read 600 degrees. Then, fourteen loaves of our signature Olive & Thyme Boule were loaded on our custom-made wooden peels. They came out twenty-two minutes later, perfectly caramelized, perfectly baked. The flavour was more intense, more complex than anything that could be produced in a commercial gas-fired oven. The fact that the home-raised, wild yeast leaven used in the dough had reached maturity over more than a year of regular feedings definitely helped. After that, in went the baguette, the Pugliese, the rye. Since then, through all four seasons, the large heart of Mary G's Artisan Breads has been giving spectacular old world, wood-fired breads to a loyal and growing following.
Now all we have to do is finish the portico walls to keep winter winds off the bakers and the baking. Let's not forget, more wood needs to be found, cut, stacked and seasoned.