May 15, 2017 Missive from J.K. Farm
It has been a slow awakening this spring on the farm. The creek is surging. I have never seen rapids in there before. My dad would have loved to have paddled that white water in his canoe! I remember thinking how fortunate we were to have planned the cane raising work bee on April 22. I thought the buds were about to burst on the vines! In reality here we are nearly a month later and the canes are still budding out! It has been cool. It has been rainy. The pale green haze that is everywhere one looks has been slower this year to deepen to the various shades of green that emerge as the new leaves form on the trees.
This year I have been observing this slow motion transformation from just outside the loafing barn on my farm. I have been there many hours each day immersed in the construction of an outdoor, wood fired clay bake oven. About 15 years ago my friend Geoff Heinricks lent me a book about the tradition of clay bake oven construction in rural Quebec, 200 years ago. These ovens used to dot the countryside and served as community baking hubs for the citizens of the villages. It intrigued me that it might be possible to build a functioning oven using for the most part materials found at hand around my farm.
This spring I finally started to build one. Using photos in the book as inspiration I first contacted my neighbour John Westerhof. John operates a steel fabrication shop called Kente Enterprises, just up the road from me in Hillier. I asked John if he could fabricate an oven door for me. I brought along the book as added inspiration for his design. In a week, I had my door. Now there was no turning back.
I gathered stone from my property and built a base. Next my friend Chris Braney took me for a lovely dim sum lunch in Markham and introduced me to Elvis, who runs an oven supply company in Markham called Alphatherm. Elvis patiently walked me through options for foundation and hearth materials. Thermal mass and insulation values were big topics of conversation. Now I had my door and my hearth under control.
I shared my plans for building a clay dome for the oven with my friend Kei Ng. Kei is a designer and co-owner of the Toronto based firm Castor Design. First I told him I was going to source young saplings from the property and bend them and lash them together to form a skeleton of sorts in the shape of a crouching beaver to support the clay that would be placed on top. Kei got so excited about it that he volunteered to come and help me build it.
Early one morning we met and trudged out together to the creek bank. We selected and cut saplings we thought might work for the framework. The height of the dome of the oven is crucial to the successful operation of the oven. There is a precise ratio between the height of the door and the height of the interior dome that must be observed in the construction. Kei and I checked our calculation of that precise formula and checked our math twice. We set our first sapling in place. Bough by bough, branch by branch we lashed together the framework. By the end of the day we had completed this stage of the construction. There were smiles and high fives exchanged between us.
The mood was jubilant, at least until my friends Geoff Heinricks and Jeff Connell arrived on the scene. Both Geoff and Jeff have years of experience working with this style of bake oven. I was so excited to share our efforts so far with them. Instead of enthusiasm I received glum faces and no eye contact. I couldn’t understand why.
Finally Jeff said “It appears you have deviated from the traditional Quebec oven in your construction.” “How so?” I responded, quite taken aback. Geoff and Jeff explained that it was immediately apparent to them that the ratio in height between top of the oven door and ceiling was not right. Our ceiling was much too high. I denied that this could be true. I was crushed. We had worked so hard and the result was undeniably beautiful. It was too much to accept that it could be wrong. Finally I calmed down and accepted the truth. Jeff Connell offered to help me make it right.
The next day we did just that. The next stage is the clay application process. For this, I wanted to use clay and earth from my property. We mixed this with straw and commercial clay powder and came up with a beautiful working formula. Each batch kneaded by hand to exactly the right consistency for shaping the dome. I think by the time we are finished we will have applied over one ton of clay.
This Saturday the 20th of May marks the launch of the 2017 Summer Dinner Series. I was hoping the oven would have been ready and we would have baked the first loaves for our guests. Alas, this is not to be for this week. By next week we will be ready and from that point will be baking fresh loaves for our guests each Saturday.
We have a great farm experience lined up for this Saturday. Norm Hardie will be with us as well to guide us through the provenance of the wines he will be serving and we will have plenty of local food stories to tell as well in the form of the terroir based menu we will be preparing. Bon appétit!