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Local baker building wood-fired oven, community

Jun 1st, 2016 | Category: Community

Project located in the Alley District of Bellingham

by Sophie Williams

Cooking with fire is an old magic. I’ve been dreaming of building a wood-fired oven for years, drawn, in part, by the romance of fire, in part by the inspiring reality of today’s wood-fired baking culture. The deliberate inefficiencies I embrace in my baking business—natural fermentation, small-scale grain farming, local milling—are of the same family as masonry, wood-fired bake ovens. They are ways to slow down and take care, to think about the health of food, place, and work. For now, as I grow Raven Breads on a shoestring budget, working out of a shared kitchen, there’s no room for a commercial wood-fired oven, but that doesn’t mean I can’t build one. I just won’t be building it for myself.

Community ovens have a long history. Across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, the village bakehouses were often the center of the community. The oven might be fired once a week, and the villagers would gather to bake their bread, visit neighbors, share news, and gossip. More recently, community ovens have been reimagined by organizations like Bread Houses Network and Loven, churches, and grassroots organizations, who have found that food and fire are powerful tools to bring people together and to bridge social divides.

Sophie Williams, owner of Raven Breads bakery, is building a new community oven next to the trail in the Alley District of Bellingham. To follow along with her progress, see www.ravenbreads.com/oven. COURTESY PHOTO

Sophie Williams, owner of Raven Breads bakery, is building a new community oven next to the trail in the Alley District of Bellingham. To follow along with her progress, see www.ravenbreads.com/oven. COURTESY PHOTO

Here, in Bellingham, I’m building new food traditions with my new community. What better way to bring people together and share food in our beautiful city than around an outdoor oven?

I spent this past winter, during the farmer’s market off-season, on oven dreams and bakery visits. In February I rode over to Victoria to visit Fol Epi and Fry’s Bakery, two excellent bakeries worth a pilgrimage for their bread alone, and made all the more interesting by their elegant stone mills and wood fired ovens. In the deep dark of early mornings, I watched their bakers load bread onto the hot bricks and pull out dark, beautiful loaves. I drank too much coffee, swept floors or washed dishes, occassionally helped shape loaves at the bench, and tried to be unobtrusive while the kitchen rushed around me. Exhausted and exhilarated at the end of too many three o’clock mornings, I rode back to Bellingham daydreaming of fire and fermentation.

In March I flew with my bike to North Carolina, another hotspot of artisan baking, and spent a month on the road visiting bakeries across the state. These bakers, too, were reimagining their food world: building a local grain economy, milling heirloom and regional grains, baking with fire.

I came home to Bellingham in the spring wild with ideas for Raven Breads, and for the oven. It would be a masonry oven, like the commercial ovens I’d seen in my travels, but smaller and without the complications of counterweighted doors, external fire chambers, the networks of temperature gages. It would be as simple an oven as I could design, with a baking chamber made of firebricks salvaged from a decommissioned cement kiln in the county, the face and chimney of scavenged red brick, the outside walls of donated corrugated metal.

I imagined the communal meals, the baking classes and public events, the bake days when people could bring their dishes, ready to bake, as in the old village ovens. I dreamed and planned. I consulted books, the internet, my memories, friends. I spent a dizzying 15 hours bent over 1/8th inch graph paper with a ruler, pencil, and endless pot of tea, translating all my notes and ideas into a blueprint. I gathered tools and materials. At the end of May, I laid the first brick.

To find out more about the community oven, visit us at www.ravenbreads.com/oven

Sophie Williams is the founder and owner of Raven Breads, a local artisan bakery making whole grain, sourdough bread and pastry with organic ingredients, grown and gathered (with a few tropical exceptions) in the Pacific Northwest. Find Raven Breads at the Bellingham Farmers Markets or, if you’re lucky, in your CSA box.

Published in the June 2016 issue of Grow Northwest

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