In a city neighborhood, attorney Peter Gilbert lives out a culinary obsession -- he's just built his second adobe oven and regularly turns out wood-fired pizzas and sourdough breads right there among the hydrangeas and phlox, all to the delight of his wife and young daughters. Home Style caught up with him for a taste.

Home Style: You've developed a reputation for your blog, Backyard Boulangerie, as well as the pizzas and breads you bake in an adobe oven you built. What got you into this?

Peter Gilbert: I used to work at a restaurant in Charlottesville, and the owner built this humongous wood-burning oven for pizza and roasted meats. I was immediately attracted to it. Then George Shenk, who builds festival ovens at concerts, catered my rehearsal dinner. I witnessed him building an oven in my parents' meadow. I started thinking as I saw this process unfold in front of me. I became, actually, really obsessed.

How complicated is it to build an earth oven?

It's useful to think of it in two steps — the foundation or pedestal, and the building of the oven itself. Building the foundation was as challenging or more than building the oven.

Once it's built, how do you get the best result when cooking in it?

You build a fire in the dome. It takes anywhere from two to four hours to come up to heat. You scoop out the majority of the coal and keep a small fire burning at the back. You cook your pizza in that space. … What's remarkable about these ovens is they're actually pretty forgiving. The pizza is usually ready in about three minutes.

And do neighbors come flocking to your house when they smell the fire?

I do have neighbors who live two blocks away who will wander over sometimes because they can smell the smoke. … I've done 50 or more pizzas in an evening, which sounds remarkable, but if you keep the temperature up, you can do one every few minutes. There's this real dance between the air temperature and the floor temperature having some parity. The worst thing is when the floor isn't hot enough and the top browns too quickly.

What is it about the taste that makes your pizza different from kitchen pizzas?

A lot of it has to do with the dough and the crust. There's a certain chew to it, I guess…. My standard sauce is a good tomato puree that's not cooked at all, and [I] add raw garlic, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, a little olive oil and dried herbs and leave [it] in the refrigerator all night. A thin layer of that, mozzarella, and I like to add whole basil leaves. I also experiment with caramelized onions and blue cheese, figs, chèvre — anything goes.

After you've made your fill of pizzas, you begin making bread?

You scoop out all of the coals and pop the door on the oven. Then you let the oven soak in the heat so the temperature evens out. Usually -- and this was hard for me in the beginning -- you wait an hour. It seemed like a really long time, but it's typically too hot for bread when you've fired a pizza. I can comfortably fit about five to eight loaves of bread [in the oven]. We eat one loaf and freeze the rest.

Building the oven is certainly within reach of the average person. People build all kinds of complicated backyard structures. What they do with it once they build it may depend on their culinary skills, but there are a million different ways to interact with it, to cook with it and enjoy it. HS

For more information on building an earth oven, Gilbert recommends Kiko Denzer's "Build Your Own Earth Oven" ($17.95, Handprint Press). He also recommends using the neo-Neopolitan pizza crust recipe found in "American Pie" by Peter Reinhart ($27.95, Ten Speed Press).


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