On a Saturday whim I drove out from Madison to Arena, Wisc., to see an oven I’d heard about. That is how I found myself listening to Papa Bob tell a story of the time he shot and killed a giant bear through the mouth from 11 feet away with a .22 rifle, in self-defense.
I drove out to meet Bob because I have a fantasy of going back to Alaska and starting a bakery with a wood-fired bread oven. Hell, we got enough wood up there. The fantasy comes in many variations. Sometimes I also make truffles, like Juliette Binoche in Chocolat but sans the child or the settling-down issues. Sometimes it’s a brewpub where W. uses the residual heat from the bread oven to brew the beer.
Here is the recurring bit:
In a Central African Republic forest, I once baked bread in a wood-fired oven that had been excavated from a termite mound. You forgave the termite-mound dust in the pizzas, they were so good. Since then, however, I’ve been stuck with my home ovens. I deeply sympathize with Jeffry Steingarten’s use of the self-cleaning cycle and other attempts to fool an oven into cooking at hotter than 500 degrees. The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens, by Dan Wing and Alan Scott, is like oven porn to me.
Papa Bob let me in his kitchen as though I were already a friend, and showed me the oven. It turns out he doesn’t use it much. This tragedy is a permit problem: In Wisconsin, one needs a restaurant license to be able to sell food that has been cooked outside, and that comes with other requirements. So Bob cooks his daily bread in a regular oven, inside. He fires up the masonry oven six or seven times a year, for parties.
On Saturday he was making a ciabatta-like bread, chewy and airy. He had started it at 6 a.m., and it came out at 4 p.m. with little effort. It began with instant yeast rather than starter, required no kneading, and included a mandatory stint in the freezer. I have been skeptical of no-knead breads—but two days later, it’s still delicious.
These techniques leave more time for hanging out with visitors.
Crowding the business side of Bob’s home/shop — Herbs Spices and More — is a trove of fine knives, kitchen gadgets and spice mixes (Szechuan peppercorns? Check. Handmade bread boards? Check.). On one side is an open room with a few tables, a coffeemaker and a lot of paintings. A farmer whose cheddar cheese (Grassy Way Organics) Bob is selling. Her retired father, who has come, among other things, to tell Bob about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and to mull the latest dairy crisis over a cup of coffee.
As for the oven, Bob built it over several years with several good friends. I leafed through a photo album of its rising; peered at his marks on a chapter of The Bread Bakers, from whose template he built his oven; and examined his receipts. Those are major obstacle in translating such fantasy into reality. He got the stone free, and it still cost him thousands.
Still, it’s good to dream. You never know when you’ll come into some money, is how I like to look at it.