Wood Fired Cooking in Greece with Julie and Keith
Those of you who have been on courses with us and talked about pots and pans will no doubt have heard about Julie and Keith from Essex; the couple who scoured the local charity shops and then took their haul of heavy duty pots and pans in their hand luggage to their holiday home in Greece, protesting to the cabin crew that their hand luggage really didn’t weigh anything at all while struggling to get them in the overhead lockers….
It was a real pleasure to catch up with them via email over the Christmas holidays to find out more about their Greek wood fired cooking adventures. Here’s what they had to say….
MFD Please tell us who you are, where you live and how long you have had your woodfired oven?
We’re Julie and Keith. We live in deepest, darkest Essex but like to spend time at our little stone cottage on the Greek mainland. In 2003, on a whim, we became the owners of around 3 acres of olive grove with a derelict old kalivi (small farmhouse) with tons of potential and lovely views. There was no water, electricity or foundations. Daylight could be seen through the roof and bats and rats were the only inhabitants.
What kind of woodfired oven do you have and is it your first?
It’s a brick built woodfired oven already at the property although it had not been used for many years. When we had our cottage renovated, the oven was the most structurally sound part of the building! Our local builder sympathetically strengthened the inside and outside, added a roof and chimney and, as a surprise present, found an old marble sink and there it all was, when we visited.
What do you think are the challenges of cooking outside where you live and do you manage to cook all year round?
Our first major challenge was overcoming being terrified of our outside oven. We had no idea of how much wood we needed, how to start a fire, how to work out the temperature, what to cook and how to cook it without killing ourselves and our chums! That’s how we came to Manna from Devon and, after two days of the wood-fired oven masterclass, all fear had gone and we could hardly wait to get back to Greece and put into practice what we had learnt.
We tend not to use our outside oven in the summer – there are too many lovely tavernas that are open (one in particular uses an old wood-fired oven, a bit like ours, and gave us an old wooden peel as a gift). It’s also simply too hot to contemplate cooking in a roaring hot oven in searing outside temperatures, however, we love cooking outside in Spring, Autumn and Winter and there is an astonishing variety of seasonal produce available locally, so what we cook changes all the time.
Tell us a bit more about your oven – how big is it; is it insulated; undercover; are you pleased with it; anything you would change with it, did you build it or buy it?
Inside it’s more than a metre wide, more than a metre deep, and with a high dome, so it takes lot of wood and a lot of time to get up to temperature. Even two days after use, there is still some ambient heat, so it must be well insulated. It is part of our cottage and was built in 1923 and refurbished in 2014.
Our land and cottage were given as a wedding dowry gift to the grandmother of the lady who sold it to us many years later. The lady’s father, who was in his 90s, told us that he and his brother had played there in the summer, when they were young. To the horror of his relatives, who called and called and then gave up, the young brother went missing all night and emerged from the oven the next morning, covered in ash, having hidden in the oven and fallen asleep during a game of hide and seek.
What wood do you use and where does that come from?
Seasoned olive wood. We have 110 trees, which our neighbours prune for us and chop into pieces around 20cm long. This is the perfect size for our wood-fired oven. Olive wood burns really cleanly and slowly. We also collect pine cones and dry them as they are brilliant for kindling, along with small twigs, newspaper etc. In the early days, we used unseasoned mulberry wood, which resulted in some eye-watering smokiness!
What are the best results you’ve had with your oven?
Last January, we had massive amounts of snow when Storm Sophia swept through Eastern Europe. We were snowed in, in the middle of nowhere, without electricity for 6 days. We were so glad of our wood-fired oven and roasted our emergency chicken in it, together with potatoes, sweet potatoes and small pumpkins. Our cottage was illuminated by gin bottles with fairy lights and heated with our wood burner. It all sounds lovely but actually was pretty desperate and hard work. Fantastic meal though. By the time we were able to made our escape, we had almost run out of matches and the kindling was dwindling!
Any disasters with your woodfired cooking – or learning opportunities!!
The worst disaster was when I accidentally set fire to my hair when too close to the front of the oven! I was making pizza, so the oven was super-hot (450 degrees C). The sound and aroma of my hair fizzing and crackling will stay with me. The result has been a hairdresser’s challenge! I shall tie it back in future and not get so close! Oh, and the broom that we used to push back the embers caught fire on a separate occasion. It’s good to have a bucket of water to hand, wear welders gauntlets – and remember fire can be dangerous.
My first loaf of sourdough bread was pretty dreadful unless there had been some potholes in the road to fill. It was a big flat thing, more like a frisbee. I almost broke the knife (and my arm) trying to cut it and fortunately didn’t attempt to eat any as I think either my teeth or jaw or both may have been in jeopardy too! A pneumatic drill may well have struggled with that – but thankfully our bread has greatly improved since then. Practice has made perfect, though there is always room for improvement!
What do your Greek neighbours think of your oven or do they all have one too?
Many of our Greek neighbours have and use wood-fired ovens and old ruined buildings seem to have them too. Our neighbours, like us, have electric ovens inside as well, yet it seems the preference is to use the traditional outside oven as that is the way many generations have always cooked. We think they appreciate that we are trying our best to keep the traditional ways alive. We just wish our command of the Greek language was good enough to ask them more about specific recipes.
What a great tale – anything else you’d like to add – any tips or advice you want to pass on?
Without doubt, our weekend at Manna from Devon helped to demystify everything. It was a game-changer. As for tips, we use a laser thermometer initially and find an oven thermometer is helpful too, especially if we are having a day of cooking and need to keep an eye on the temperature.
We had a metal door made by a local blacksmith. The original one was full of holes and rust and was used as a template. We have been able to buy a good selection of tools locally, though our metal peel is very long and unwieldly and our search for a small handled metal peel would improve the odds for successful pizza removal.
Having an outside woodfired oven and getting to know how it works and how to cook in it has been a revelation.
We have all your books and refer to them often. We also keep an eye out for new recipes on your blog. There is literally nothing we would not cook in our outside oven now.
It does take time but the flavours of the food are amazing. Vegetables taste astonishing slow-cooked with some olive oil and a little salt and pepper.
As recommended by Holly and David, we have a veritable arsenal of various cast iron, copper and stainless steel pots and pans, mainly found in charity shops for a song and brought here in our hand luggage. We have perfected Oscar-winning performances at airports to try to make our bags look effortlessly light! We keep saying we don’t need anything else, however, we just can’t leave good quality cast iron casseroles with lids, no staining, crazing or chips, so the collection continues to expand…..
We’ll know we have truly cracked this wood-fired oven malarkey when we have enough energy (and egg whites) to cook meringues overnight after a day of cooking in a falling oven.
We’ll keep you posted … until then … enormous thanks for all the help, encouragement and advice and all the very best for 2020!