Showing posts with label wood oven. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wood oven. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Authenticity versus decoration

Following up on my previous blog post [display], I wish to tackle here the interesting questions of basic distinctions—both structural and purely visual—between an authentic old-fashioned wood-burning oven, on the one hand, and a trivially-decorated concrete shit-house, on the other. In a nutshell, it’s the same kind of distinction that exists between two vastly different kinds of bread that we encounter these days. Once upon a time, in France, loaves of bread were generally round or oblong.




Industrial sliced bread (of the kind I recently purchased for my Australian visitors at Xmas) then arrived on the scene… without making any kind of gigantic impact in France.


Notice the striking geometrical contrast between the lovely curves of old-fashioned bread and the harsh rectangularity of the plastic-enclosed industrial product. That’s exactly the distinction that concerns me between a nice old-style stone oven and the nasty flat rectangular shit-house shape that arises inevitably when you’re tempted to install your bread oven inside an external structure made out of so-called CMUs (concrete masonry units) of the kind used to erect modern housing.


Now, I’m not saying that everything of a flat rectangular kind is necessarily ugly in the bread oven domain. That would be a stupid evaluation of the historical situation, because countless ancient bread ovens were incorporated into farmhouses of a basically rectangular architecture. All I’m trying to say is that we should strive to steer clear, as far as possible, of the ugly shit-house shape derived from the use of CMUs.

In the catalogue of examples from the oven manufacturer, let’s start with the worst. Here’s what I would call a Mickey Mouse oven:


I have the impression that a pizza emerging from such a flimsy oven (if ever such an emergence were indeed possible) would have a curious flavor of lollipops. Such an oven might maybe produce cup cakes (?), but nothing more substantial.

This second example embarrasses me a lot, because I must admit that my Photoshop vision of a “dressed up” wood oven in my Gamone cellar was largely inspired by the following esthetic atrocity, which stinks of pretentious nouveaux riches design:


Fortunately, not everything is mildly nauseating in the manufacturer’s photo album. Here’s an oven that I would qualify as “heavy-handed, but not at all bad”:


And here’s a second example that I would qualify as “bad at the bottom, but quite good at the top”:


From a design viewpoint, the creator of a structure housing a wood-fuelled oven should do his utmost to move away from the flat verticality of the amorphous shit-house model, and he should make the structure attractive without any need for abominable decoration. In the context of this noble ambition, a fundamental factor is the nature and quality of the building materials. You can’t build the Parthenon using nothing more than CMUs and a painted plaster coating.

Great news!  Yesterday afternoon, I was thrilled to learn, by chance, that there’s a supply of superb construction stones just a few kilometres away from Gamone, in the village of Auberives-en-Royans. The stone costs next to nothing, but there’s a hitch. The purchaser has to sort through the huge pile of stone in order to to extract the actual fragments that he wishes to purchase. So, next spring, I foresee long hours spent in the Auberives quarry, with my Kangoo and my trailer in the background. Meanwhile, here’s a specimen of this wonderful limestone that I brought back from Auberives yesterday afternoon:


Insofar as one might fall in love with stone, I fell in love immediately, yesterday afternoon, with this magnificent limestone product. Admire its cream-hued density. The firm at Auberives, Fromant (my enemy, a few years ago, in the battle—which we won—to prevent quarrying next to Gamone), designates this stone as Rencurel (the next village up from Choranche). I learned with stupefaction that the small quarry in question belonged to my former friend Roger Zanella [deceased a few years ago and buried in the cemetery of Choranche], who was one of my primary contacts during my installation at Gamone. (I could talk for ages about my friendly contacts with Roger.) If indeed Roger’s limestone were soon to house my bread oven at Gamone, that would be (in my mind) a minor but magnificent miracle. In the case of Roger Zanella (a native of the Vercors, of the Bourne, and a celebrated hunter), all was authenticity. There was no place for decoration.

For my future wood-fuelled oven, I'll have to select and bring back to Gamone an adequate stock of this splendid Rencurel limestone. Then, starting next Spring, I'll erect patiently my Gamone bread oven—day by day, stone by stone—which will emerge slowly with all the sensuous pastel-hued roundness of a nicely-baked female from Auguste Renoir.

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.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Moving heavy stuff

Over the years, I've become accustomed to inventing ways of moving heavy stuff single-handedly, with a minimum of effort. Here, for example, I was faced with the challenge of moving the heaviest element of my future wood oven. It had been sitting outside in front of the house, and I decided to bring it into the cellar, where the future oven is to be built.


The new door has not been installed yet on the cellar. Even though the weather has improved enormously at Gamone over the last two days, the warmth has not yet diffused into the cellar, which remains quite chilly, even though it's just alongside my living room. So, I haven't yet got back into action concerning the construction of the wood oven. To be truthful, I'm incapable of performing useful manual work in damp and chilly conditions. In my brain, there must be some kind of motivational switch that needs a certain level of dryness and warmth before it'll jump from off to on. In fact, there are probably quite a few archaic on/off switches of an electromechanical kind in my brain, which is a bit like an old factory that was built back in the early days of industrial electricity, before the introduction of modern electronic devices. To use the same term applied to aging computer systems, you might call it a legacy brain. But it still seems to work quite well, for example, in the case of inventing ways of moving heavy stuff single-handedly, with a minimum of effort.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Work at the southern end of my cellar

In my blog post of 11 April 2013 entitled Spring has sprung... at last [display], I mentioned my intention to construct, in my ancient stone cellar at Gamone, an old-fashioned wood-burning oven for baking bread and pizzas. This is likely to be a long and arduous project, since I first have to prepare the cellar for the installation of this massive object. In the present blog post, I shall describe the very first operation in this project, which I'm carrying out at the southern end of the cellar. This information is relatively technical, and is designed to be appreciated primarily by François, Emmanuelle and Christine, who have always remained interested by the evolution of the property at Gamone.

Let me start at the beginning. Here's a view of the southern façade of my house, taken in November 1993 (several months before I became the official owner of the property):


The scene reveals why, at that time, we took few photos from this viewpoint. A giant linden tree prevented an observer from obtaining a meaningful view of the southern façade of the house. But this photo indicates clearly the proportions of the roofed area behind the house (above the cellar), where a white van is parked. To reach this spot, the vehicle had to approach the house (on the opposite side of the photo), pass in front of the house (on the gravel down on the right-hand side) and then reverse up the grassy slope alongside the linden tree.

A long time ago, I asked René Uzel to remove that linden tree, along with the old apple tree that you can see on the left-hand edge of the photo. Since then, the southern façade of my house has been clearly visible, as you can see from this photo that I took this morning:


It's not easy to compare details in these two photos, 20 years apart, since it's hard to see anything at all in the first photo. It should nevertheless be apparent that a huge amount of earth has been removed from beneath the wheels of the vehicle in the old photo, enabling us to observe almost the entire southern wall of the cellar (which was completely buried in the old photo). You can even distinguish the upper half of an entrance into the cellar, shown here in an enlargement:


A decade ago, I had asked René Uzel to use his mini digger to remove the earth under which this southern entrance into the cellar had been buried, maybe for several centuries. As soon as the stone wall and the entrance became visible, I was in for a major surprise. Noticing the way in which fragments of hard earth remained attached to every rough stone in the façade, I suddenly realized that this was no doubt the first time ever, since its construction, that this wall had been brought out into the open daylight. I had always imagined that the entrance (which formed an alcove when seen from inside the cellar) had been blocked by earth, a long time ago, for unknown reasons. I now realized that, on the contrary, this entrance had never, at any point in time, been cleared of the earth that blocked it. In other words, this wall and entrance had been constructed from inside the future cellar, using the original earth as a formwork (coffrage in French). And nobody (up until my intervention) had ever got around to removing the formwork. Faced with this unexpected situation, I decided that a reinforced concrete retaining wall should be erected on the left, as soon as possible.

Here's a closeup photo of the entrance at the southern end of the cellar, taken a month ago from the top of the short earthen ramp that leads down from the level of the outside ground:


As soon as René had unearthed this new entrance into the cellar (and the house), I sealed it firmly by means of a pair of old wooden doors that I jammed in place. Now that this wood work has been removed, I can look out from inside the cellar towards the south.


Before thinking about having a door installed here, I needed to build a concrete threshold. So, I promptly tidied up the ground and laid down the formwork for the future threshold, as shown in the following photo:


Clearly, a previous owner seems to have used this alcove to support wooden shelves.


Here's a closeup view of the threshold formwork:


A fortnight ago, when I turned on my electric cement mixer with the intention of starting to lay concrete for the threshold, I was annoyed to find that the machine stopped turning after 20 seconds. I unscrewed the cover, and discovered that the cam belt had slid off the big cog on the drive shaft that makes the drum rotate.


Knowing nothing whatsoever about the mechanics of concrete mixers, I drove immediately to a big hardware company in Saint-Marcellin to seek guidance. Usually, as soon as I open my mouth in such a setting, full of professional tradesmen, the staff and onlookers realize that I'm a do-it-yourself tinkerer, and I sense their condescending regard. But everything changes in a positive sense when they hear you explaining that you've opened up your concrete mixer, discovered that the cam shaft has slipped of the big cog on the drive shaft, and that you need to fix it. Anybody who talks that kind of talk in a tradesmen's store must be taken seriously. So, I was thrilled to find a tradesman in overalls come over and tell me that, after having installed the new cam belt, I should rotate the drum manually for a few turns, to make sure that the new belt is in place. It was surely the first time in my life that French tradesmen seemed to be respecting me as a member of their fraternity. I felt elated, but I forced myself not to say much more, for fear of being revealed as a fake.

The next morning, I was able to examine closely the mechanism of the electric motor in my concrete mixer, and I discovered that the old cam belt was in perfect shape. The cause of the breakdown was a simple bolt that had escaped from the motor shaft, enabling the small cog to drop off. And, five minutes later, I was able to insert a new bolt, tighten it and get the machine running perfectly. Funnily enough, when I went back sheepishly to the hardware store in order to return the new cam belt and ask for a refund, I was received once again as a genuine "tradie" (as Aussies say). Not only had I taken apart the motor of my concrete mixer, but I had been able to detect an unexpected problem and repair it effortlessly. The fellow at the counter found it perfectly normal to refund the cam belt.

Finally, I used two bags of cement to lay enough concrete for the threshold, and the final result is perfectly acceptable.


The concrete slab might appear to be exceptionally thick. In fact, it needed to be a little higher than the level of the future elevated wooden planking that I intend to install (once I've finished the construction of the wood oven) throughout the entire cellar, which measures 6 meters long (from north to south) and 4 meters wide (from east to west).


The threshold slab is not solid concrete from top to bottom, since the level of the ground is located about halfway down the slab. As for the future staircase, it will reach the outside ground level at about the top of the wooden barrier, which holds a rock fill on the other side.

Yesterday, a carpenter from Pont-en-Royans dropped in to take measurements for a door at this place. Later on, I intend to build a concrete staircase from the threshold up to the level of the outside ground. It will be composed of exactly 9 steps, each of a so-called rise (height ) of 17 cm and a so-called run (depth) of 25 cm. See, I'm already starting to talk, once again, like a genuine tradesman. I must be careful not to get a swollen head, otherwise my tradesman's hard hat will no longer fit on my skull.