Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Pizza oven obstacles

Towards the end of my recent article entitled Damaged wood shed [display], I made the following announcement:
I would like to install my future pizza oven beneath a wooden canopy—roughly half as wide as the wood shed, and of a similar style, probably not quite as high—located approximatively at the current place of Fitzroy’s kennel… which would be moved to the spot where the compost box is currently placed.
Not surprisingly, whenever I come out with news of that kind, I realize that I’m likely to receive feedback. To a large extent, that’s why I’ve got into the habit of making such announcements on my blog. And it’s most likely that this feedback will impinge upon the announcement itself, causing it to be modified or even abandoned… to be replaced by a later announcement of a different kind.

Here’s a photo of the entire area to the left of the point where the road meets up with my house at Gamone:

Click to enlarge

On the left, there’s my mailbox, alongside a gigantic poplar tree that I really should remove one of these days, because its branches could possibly be blown onto the house during a blizzard (such as the one that struck us at Xmas). For the moment, the area between the mailbox and the old linden tree is a work zone, where I stock sand and gravel, and park my trailer. After the linden tree, there’s my recently-built wood shed, followed by Fitzroy’s kennel, a wooden compost container, and then my sunken rose garden (directly in front of the house).

Yesterday, when I explained to Serge and Tineke that I was thinking of erecting my future pizza oven at the spot where the kennel now stands, they reacted quite negatively, telling me that it would be a pity to set up a big mass of concrete (1.5m square and 2m tall) at this central point of visual contact with both the ancient stone house (on the right) and the magnificent Bourne Valley and the Cournouze (to the left).

Concerning my future pizza oven, I must make it clear that there is indeed an underlying Big Problem—in fact, a Big Ugliness Problem—which I shall now attempt to describe. You see, the future oven is composed of a small set of heavy pink stone elements that have to be assembled on a metre-high platform and glued together by a special mortar. In the following photo, two men are installing one of the final elements of the oven:

The man on the left is standing on the ground, whereas the fellow on the right has climbed up onto the square platform, whose minimal area is about 1.5m by 1.5m. Here’s a view of the fully-assembled oven, with a metal smoke pipe emerging from an opening above the entry into the dome of the oven:

You can detect the presence of three concrete walls surrounding the oven, and extending upwards to a height of about 40cm above the highest element of the assembled oven. The general idea is that the builders will now use concrete bricks to close this façade of the structure, in such a way that only the element with the semi-circular opening (including its flat threshold) remains visible. Finally, the interior of the cubic box enclosing the oven will be filled with rockwool and sand (up to the top of the above photo) in order to isolate the oven thermally from the outside world. It goes without saying that this total isolation is absolutely necessary if the burning wood inside the oven is to generate an inside temperature capable of cooking a pizza or baking bread.

Now, what this means is that the starting point of the building operations generally consists of using ugly concrete bricks to erect the platform upon which the oven is to be assembled.

Once the platform (capable of supporting a weight of about half a ton) is in place, you carry on upwards for another metre or so, with more concrete bricks, in order to erect the three above-mentioned walls forming a box around the future oven. And you finally close the top of this concrete structure with some kind of a roof supporting an external chimney. Here is the precise French-language schema for this structure, as supplied by the oven manufacturer, named Ephrem:

At this point, I would imagine that my readers are starting to understand what I meant, a moment ago, when I spoke of a Big Ugliness Problem. We started out imagining that we were going to erect some kind of old-fashioned wood oven, and we seem to be ending up with a nasty box-shaped concrete structure that looks more like an outdoor shit-house with a chimney coming out of the roof! Clearly, something has gone wrong… and something must be done to retrieve a minimum of esthetic harmony and old-fashioned charm. But what?

If you read the brochures produced by the firms that manufacture such ovens, or if you talk with bricklayers or the employees of hardware stores, you’ll soon encounter the French verb habiller, which might be translated as “to clothe”. In other words, you’re encouraged to “dress up” the harsh concrete surfaces of the shit-house with some kind of decorative material such as glued-on tiles, slabs of stone or even (horror of horrors) plaques of fake stone. Here’s a Photoshop presentation of how I imagined naively that I might be able to “clothe” the concrete shit-house if it were to be erected inside the ancient cellar of my house at Gamone (an idea that I've since abandoned):

However, anybody with an ounce of construction experience and imagination knows that, no matter how hard you try to “dress up” a vertical wall of concrete bricks, the end result will always look like… an unhappy attempt to “decorate” a vertical wall of concrete bricks. So, it’s better to refrain from even trying to cheat in this way.

Another “solution” consists of simply plastering the eyesore shit-house in a minimalist fashion and then making an effort to hide it as best you can, either by erecting it in an out-of-sight corner, or by covering the ugly structure in a more-or-less attractive wooden shed, or by a combination of these two remedies. To tell the truth, those were the approaches that I was contemplating sadly over the last day or so, since the visit of Tineke and Serge.

Happily, there is in fact a pleasant and authentic solution to this challenge, which would consist simply of using noble materials (local stone) to build a genuine and attractive small stone “cabin” in which to assemble the oven... maybe in the zone between my mailbox and the linden tree. As of this afternoon, I have ascertained that this honest down-to-earth approach is perfectly feasible, and that I could carry out the construction operations on my own, single-handed… but I’ll leave my detailed explanations for a future blog post.

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