When Ben and I got back from our vacation in January and discovered that the clay oven that we built last year was unusable, we had a moment of “Oh %$&#, what do we do now!?” We had pretty much already decided to build a new oven this year, but we were hoping to use last year’s oven in the meantime. That obviously was not going to happen.
I counted the weeks remaining before markets start–thirteen–and, like a grad student trying to meet a thesis deadline thought, “that’s not enough time!” and then tried to make it happen anyway.
Jan 4-Jan 28 (3.5 weeks) The first step was figuring out who was going to build our oven. We had built our first one, which lasted a year, but we were ready to hire a professional to build our second one. After many phone calls and emails with bakers and builders (thank you all!), we chose Eric Moshier and his crew at Solid Rock Masonry in Minnesota. We had visited one of Eric’s ovens at Muddy Fork Bakery in Bloomington, Indiana in December, and liked what we saw.
Eric Schedler, the baker at Muddy Fork, had nothing but glowing reviews of his new high mass well-insulated single-chamber oven, and we listened. Solid Rock got the job too, because they were available to come down in early March, and they could do the build in just one week. Plus the price was right.
Jan 29-Feb 13 (2.5 weeks) Then came the design email marathon. For what is essentially a box that holds a fire, there were lots of things to think about. How big should the hearth be? How much bread will we want to make in ten years? Will we be using sheet pans? What kind of door do we want? How do we keep steam in? Eric held up his side of the bargain, responding patiently and promptly.
Feb 14-15 Decompression break for Thorny-O, our annual old-time music and dance gathering! Some thirty friends came over for a house square dance, good food, and a tiny instrument jam featuring Sophia on miniature fiddle!
Feb 16-Feb 22 (1 week) We hired the good folks at Lithic Construction in Charlottesville to excavate, pour the footing, and build the foundation. We were very lucky that Jarrod and crew were willing to take this job on such short notice. And then it snowed, which shut down everything in Charlottesville. The week delay was actually fine with us, because we also grow vegetables, remember? We used that week to put the plastic back on the greenhouse and start our little seedlings.
Feb 23-Mar 1 (1 week) Jarrod and his crew from Lithic were awesome. They braved the snow and soggy ground to build us a solid foundation, finishing on time despite the weather delays and wet conditions. They dug a hole, laid a reinforced concrete slab, built up a hollow concrete block foundation and the poured another slab that supports the weight of the oven core. And then Jarrod did us a huge favor by loaning us their scaffolding for the remainder of the job so that we wouldn’t have to rent it.
Mar 2 Arrival! Eric, Mark and Jacob arrived! The three Minnesota Masons pulled up in a truck that was pulling a trailer full of everything they would need for the week. I know from my past life running field research projects that it is no small feat to organize all the things you know you will need, the things that you might need, and the things to improvise the things you didn’t know that you would need.
This is Eric Moshier–he led the project and designed the oven. He is gentle, avuncular, and focused. He raises most of the food for his family on his 10 acres, including a giant tom turkey named Fred, whose smoked breast we had for dinner. His breakfast was hotcakes, eggs, and a cup of strong coffee blended with a dollop of grass-fed butter.
Jake is the youngest, biggest, newest guy on the team. He humbly called himself “the grunt,” slinging seventy pounds of firebrick with one hand. He also welded my complicated set of oven doors, and he fixed the tie rod of our tractor with a piece of wire. His breakfast was a couple bowls of puffed cereal and a Monster energy drink.
Mark is a scrappy life-long mason who had the dubious priviledge of crawling in the oven to clean mortar off of the hearth. He also sells fish bait and antiques, could name the manufacturors of our cast iron cookware at a glance, and would receive a letter if you just addressed it to “Trapper.” His breakfast was a cigarette and a cup of drip coffee.
All three of them lived in our house for the week. They brought a lot of food with them, and we made it our business to cook it. We made what we thought was an astonishing amount of food, but somehow there were never leftovers. The first night the five of us put away a pork pot roast that Jake brought, a venison roast that Eric brought, three pounds of Ben’s sage-y mashed taters, and a berry pie. The second night we had soup made with smoked breast of Fred and wild rice that Eric’s friend harvested, mustard-encrusted chicken legs that Mark brought, chicken livers in sour cream on toast, and a salad. You get the idea.
Mar 2-9 (1 week) This is the week the oven got built. One bonus to hiring masons from Minnesota to work on your winter project in VA? A little snow is nothing! Not when you build yourself a cozy shelter around your project, complete with propane heat, lights, an ipod, and energy drinks. One bonus to building an oven on a farm? You have a tractor to move heavy stuff around. OK, so Ford had some trouble with the mud and snow, but it did a good job.
So in nine weeks we went from the “Oh $@%#” moment to an oven. We still have to paint the OSB and make the site ready for baking, but we’ve been slowly curing the oven, steadily increasing the size of the fires to heat up all that mass. At this rate, the oven is on track to bake bread for our first markets. Phew, we made it!
The pictures that follow are the highlights of the construction, and they more or less speak for themselves. All told, the guys at Solid Rock were disciplined workers and a pleasure to be around. We would reccommend them highly to anyone.