Anyone who uses a fireplace or wood-burning stove across British Columbia is no doubt hauling, splitting, piling and yes, burning their wood these days to keep warm. But there’s a different kind of wood-burning device out there gaining in popularity, a very efficient device that is being used all year round, and that is the wood-burning oven. I checked out some of these devices, both commercial and private, for this week’s edition of Island Artisans. I’m aware of commercially used wood-burning ovens at places like Merridale Cider, the James Barber Memorial Oven at Providence Farm, a wonderful bread oven at Salt Spring Island Bread Company, Wild Fire and Fol Epi in Victoria and there’s even one now at the Vancouver Island University Nanaimo campus, so students in the culinary program are being trained in how to use them. On the personal side, I’ve visited friends with wood-burning ovens on Salt Spring Island, Fairburn Farm, Glenora and this beautiful oven in the photo at left in Cowichan Bay. My wife is clamouring for one in our back yard, so I’m declaring it a delicious trend.
This photo to left shows the Le Panyol oven owned by Nick Versteeg of DV Cuisine, a beautiful French-made oven.
They are really multi-purpose units. When you get them stoked up you are looking at 700 or 800 degrees Fahrenheit of heat, ideal for baking a thin crust pizza in minutes. But good wood-burning ovens really retain their heat for hours and hours at a lower temperature, which makes them ideal for baking bread after the pizzas are done, and after the bread you can do long braising dishes like baked beans or short ribs, anything that likes a nice low and slow cooking. But I have to say that a pizza straight out of a wood burning oven is just amazing…
Now with two locations, Pizzeria Prima Strada in Victoria is churning out pies at a rate of up to six every two minutes. I’ve eaten their pizza at their first restaurant on Cook Street, and from their great little mobile wood-burning oven at Feast of Fields, but I hadn’t been to their new location on Bridge Street, tucked into what’s being called the Rock Bay neighbourhood. There I met up with Cristen DeCarolis-Dallas, who owns Prima Strada along with her husband Geoff.
Prima Strada came along when Geoff decided to get back into the restaurant business after he could no longer find the great thin crust pizzas the couple enjoyed when they lived in the San Francisco Bay area in California. They did plenty of research and came up with the perfect pizza oven for making crispy slash chewy thin crust pizzas. But Canadians are known for loving those giant-sized thick crust pizzas piled high with gooey toppings…Cristen says they knew they would have to embark on some education of the pizza public. "I had a customer the other day who was starting to load up the pizza with toppings in their order and I had to calm them down and say you don't need all of that. In fact, most thin crust pizzas are just tomato sauce and cheese, or sauce and some meat. There's nothing wrong with putting on good quality toppings, but on a thin crust they can make the pizza soggy, and the nice thing about our pizzas is that they don't necessarily taste the same with every bite!"
(to the right, the special flour used for the pizza dough at Prima Strada)
I got to get up close and personal with the oven at the Bridge Street location, which was fired up for the lunch service. To give it an extra bit of heat, they just have to toss a few pieces of wood onto the coals where they burst into flames. This one was imported from Italy from a company that has been making them since the 1950's. I stood there and watched as Tomoko, the woman who makes the dough and maintains the oven, cooked a couple of pizzas. I timed them with my watch, almost precisely 2 minutes from the time they went in to the time they came out.
If you're interested in learning more about wood-burning ovens, visit this Brick Bake Oven page where there are plenty of links to keep you busy. If you're not interested in building one yourself, the Forno Bravo people in California have pre-assembled ovens you can purchase one online and have it delivered to your door!