Browsing Posts tagged clay ovens

A swarm… 02/06/12

…Of people.

And of bees!

Wednesday of last week saw us open our Plots to the world.  It was our contribution to the Sheffield Environment Weeks, and apart from a slight hiccup with the weather, it all went off swimmingly.

Unfortunately, I have no photos of the event for I was working like mad at the new pizza oven, and in a little over two hours, I managed to whack out over 25 pizzas!  Each one was individually topped by the customer, and apart from one slight miscalculation with the timing of a single pizza, everybody enjoyed them.  Of course, there were loads of people who said, “I want one in my garden!”

Hmm.  If you’re prepared for the back-breaking and foot-bashing work, then go ahead.

When we explained this to folks, it must be said the majority then said, “Oh! So you can’t just knock one up in a weekend then?”

Not as such.  Not unless you’ve got Alan Titchmarsh and Charlie Dimmock coming round with their gang.

Then last week we had a swarm!

This was the middle hive that I’ve kind of adopted.  Gary was the first to spot the exiting bees (…Again!..) who went high into a neighbouring tree in the woodland at the side of LEAF.  Regretfully, they were way too high to safely catch, and pretty soon, they headed off down in the direction of The Northern General Hospital just down the road.

When Charles came this Wednesday, with some of our volunteers (…I was unfortunately very busy, so couldn’t attend…) and he checked the hives over and did a ‘Reversal’ on the first one.  Next time I’m down there, I’ll get some proper shots and explain what this is all about.

Anyway, I’m afraid its way past my bedtime right now, so Dear Reader, I’ll have to leave it there.

More photos and funny tales for next time?

You bet.

The recent warm spell is continuing, and down at LEAF, we’re loving it.

Of course, not a Big Lot gets done, but given all the hard work we do at most other times of the year, we don’t feel guilty in the slightest.Wall-to-wall sunshine.

The sun was shining all day, and despite liberal, repeated slatherings of Factor 20, my shoulders, back, neck, face, and arms are glowing this morning.

This is a view of the sky yesterday morning from my allotment.  I went down there briefly to check the greenhouses (Sweltering!) and to catch a few rays on my own.  Because there were children and small animals up at The LEAF Plots, it was here I managed to get my top off and get burned, quietly sat on my own, thinking, while listening to Classic FM on the little transistor radio we have down there.  Only half an hour or so, but well needed.

So yesterday was another chance for us to get to grips with our new, improved pizza oven.  New and improved because the two extra layers of clay/straw and clay had made it a totally different animal to cook with.

As I’ve previously said, last year it was all about getting it up to temperature and keeping it there -meaning loads and loads of wood, almost constantly feeding it.

Now it’s all about getting it up to temperature and completely resisting the urge to throw more wood on!All fired up!

This is it before all the ‘fun’ started as it’s getting up to the correct heat.  Later, as the wood died down, and the oven appeared almost empty, I had to physically stop myself throwing in more fresh stuff.  Whenever the urge came upon me, I’d take my gloves off, and try to put my hands near it.  This proved that even though it didn’t look like much was happening, the heat was certainly there to cook with.

Both Sara and Matt had made dough for the pizzas, and it goes without saying that both mixes were excellent.

Because we had so much dough, we were able to make ‘proper’, thicker bases for the pizzas, and that, coupled with the lower cooking temperature meant that nearly all of them came out with everything cooked, without the ‘doughy’ centres we had last weekend.

During the madness/fun that was the actual cooking, Jon came up with an excellent idea.Cooking!

He had made a pizza, and had me cook it for him, but just before I would have considered it ready, he had me take it out and fold it over like a calzoné.  This enabled half of the pizza bottom to lightly brown.  A couple of minutes later, we turned it fully over to allow the other side to brown.  The resulting pizza was superb.  I think you’ll be hearing much more about this style of pizza in the coming weeks!

After all the pizzas (..there were about 15 in total, I think…), Pam had brought down a freshly baked rhubarb crumble with custard.

I’ve kind of run out of superlatives here, but you get the idea:  Gorgeous!

Not to be outdone, Jon the made some fresh rhubarb and ginger drop scones.Jon's rhubarb and ginger scones before cooking.

As you can clearly see, these little beauties looked excellent before they went in, but I’m afraid we’re still getting used to the fierce heat of this oven.

This is another way of saying that it was too hot!

Whoops!  Drop scones a little overdone!You can see them here to the right, and as you can see, the heat was way too much for them.

In hindsight, we should have let the oven cool down for another half hour or so before we put these in.

Still, like a science experiment, we don’t class it as a failure.  I was a learning experience!

Next time (…for there most definitely will be a next time!..), we’ll wait that bit longer.  Also, just as we did with Matt’s pie last week, we’ll put them on Ian’s groovy stand, and we’ll put them in the doorway to cook, turning them at regular intervals, just like we did last week.

As I keep banging on about, this Wednesday is our big Open Evening, so we have to get everything spot-on for that.

The fact that we have to keep cooking and eating food just to make sure we’ve got it absolutely correct, is a happy coincidence.

Last Tuesday the 22nd saw parties of schoolchildren learning and having fun under the watchful eyes of Diane and a whole host of teachers and classroom assistants.  Part of their learning was to weed two small beds, and while little hands make light work, we’re not complaining!  We’ll be able to get stuff in these at the weekend.  A big “Thank You!” to them for this work!

After about a pint of squash after the children had left, it was my job to see the damage on the clay oven now it had fully cooled down, and if possible, put it right.The surface of Mars?

As you can see to the right, it took quite a ‘hammering’, but as I’ve already said, this is only to be expected and natural.  As the water gets gradually driven out of the clay and sand, its bound to crack.  To try to prevent it, we’d need PVA or similar, and we’re not going down that route.

If you click to enlarge this photo, down to the right you’ll see a hand print.  This is not wanton vandalism!  This is, in fact, Matt’s hand print, proudly displaying to the world that he finished it off, thank you!

Patched!We have quite a bit of puddled clay already mixed from way back when we made the first layer, so I wasted no time in getting a bucket-load of it, and started to patch it up.

This shows the right hand side of the oven and you can see just how massive some of these cracks were.  Nothing was loose or falling off, and once you got your head around just how deep some of these were -and how much ‘gobbo’ they took, it was fairly pleasant work.

Pretty soon, Matt, Diane and Gary came over to give me a hand, and between us, we got it all looking ship-shape.

To the right here is the same area as the first photo, but this time sans the massive canyons.Finished!

As you can see, Matt’s print is still there, and Gary very thoughtfully and carefully patched around it to preserve it’s unique shape.

To the left of this photo, you’ll just make out the isolated ‘blob’.  This was one of my patches.  Some little rat-bag had inscribed ‘sooky‘ in the clay, so I covered it up.  Mitzi takes a very dim view of vandals, and can be very vocal in those views.  Of course, this is after she’s clawed someone’s eyes out.

Back to happier matters, and the wonderful oven stand that Ian (no relation) made last weekend.Ian's wonderful oven stand.

And here it is!  You’d never guess that this was made using an old plastic and metal school chair and a piece of heavy-gauge grilling!  Notice how it all just seems to fit together so well.  Awesome!

This little stand was instrumental in the first successful cooking of one of Matt’s fabled rhubarb pies.  I’m sure that without it and the airflow it provides under a dish, it wouldn’t have cooked anything like as well as it did.

And so to today.  I briefly went down to The Plots for about lunchtime, and not surprisingly, given the heat, there wasn’t a Big Lot being down.

At one point, Diane was half-heartedly digging over a bed that will very soon be host to a load of salad stuff, and this little chap cheekily came over, loudly shrilling at us.Get on with the digging!

It seemed like he was shouting, “Get on with the digging!  I’ve got a family to feed here!”

Anyway, he left with ore than a beak full of worms and grubs, and luckily Mitzi wasn’t around to see him.

Still, what with the heat and all, even if she had seen him, it would be a case of, “…Yeah.  Whatever.  It’s far too hot to even think about chasing you!”

Tomorrow’s forecast is for more of the same, so I may well pop down to see my own badly-neglected plot in the afternoon.  I’ll find some shade, turn on Classic FM very quietly and doze.

Just like Mitzi!


Phew! 17/05/12

What a day!

Thursday is a regular ‘LEAF Day’ up at The Plots and if the weather’s good, then we normally get a good number of volunteers.  Today however, despite the rain forecast, The Plots seemed to be heaving with people!

But before most of them arrived, it was ‘Clay Time’, which funnily enough rhymes with ‘Play Time’, and this morning was definitely a morning for Grown Ups Playing With Clay.

PXI Nick was there, and he was very keen to ‘get his feet dirty’, take his shoes and socks off and get stuck in.PXI Nick, before he got stuck in, looking on in trepidation.

Well, he said he was keen, and certainly wasted no time in getting barefoot, but when Diane had laid out one of the batches I had done over the weekend, he didn’t look quite so enthusiastic.

As you can see here to the right!

He soon got into it though, after the initial ‘OUCH that’s cold!’ as he first put his feet into it.

The plan was to re-do the mixes I’d done and if necessary, mix some together in case some batches were ‘wetter’ than others.

Yay!  This is <i>great</i> fun!As you can see here to the left, after the initial shock of the cold of the clay, he very quickly got into it, and was soon happily dancing up and down.

Of course, it helped that there were so many other people around to encourage him on.

Meanwhile, Matt and I made a start on the ‘final’ coat of clay on the oven itself.

This top coat didn’t need the insulating straw in it -this was just a final ‘top coat’ to give it a nice finish, rather than the ugly ‘High Altitude Elephant’s Extreme Surprise’ we left it as the other afternoon.

Matt and I putting on the top coat.As the weather forecasters had said today would be showery, we put gazebos up on both the puddling area and over the oven itself.  It didn’t really matter to the clay that it should get wet, but as we’d rather stay dry, it seemed sensible.

Here we are to the right with our two different techniques.  Matt favoured the small lumps and carefully placed on, making sure it stuck properly.  I was more for the ‘throw it on and pick up off the floor what doesn’t stick’ method.  As Matt said, both valid ways, and both very entertaining to watch.  Ian and Graham (Both no relation.) sat and watched us right the way through, continually making ‘helpful comments’ like: “You missed a bit!” and “Is it meant to look like that?”

All said and done in the best possible way!

We realised that we’d need two more mixes to really finish it off, so we went back up to the top mixing area.  Nick quickly took his shoes and socks off again, and this time Ian decided to give it a try!  The three of us had great fun working on these two mixes, and I really must say it makes a whole world of difference having more than one of us doing this.Ian and I with Nick, busy in the background.

You’re no doubt wondering over all these photos, and how they were taken given that I’d promised to spare my new camera the indignity of sand and clay.  Thankfully, ‘Ace Lens Diane’ was on hand to take these shots.

Here are Ian and myself about halfway through ‘our’ mix, with Nick busy in the background.

After only a few minutes it seemed, these mixes were done and ready to be applied to the dome.

Matt had been busy down at the oven with the plasterer’s float, smoothing off this top layer, so we brought down the final mixes and while I slapped it on (…A scientific term, this…), he expertly went round the whole dome getting it to an almost mirror finish.Matt, proud of his work!

Here he is, happy in the knowledge that he’s done an absolutely perfect job!

With the clay work now finished, we wasted no time in getting it lit and starting to dry.  Shaun helped me get a fire going with some of the wood that Ian had cut a few weeks ago when we got the ultimate Big Boy’s Toy -the axe.

Pretty soon, I was feeding wood in a quite a rate -as you have to do to get a fire going really well.

I did notice though that once it was up to temperature, it didn’t need much more fuel to keep that temperature up, and also that it didn’t rapidly heat and cool as it had tended to do in the past.

Maybe it was my imagination, but I don’t think so.  We’ll see on Saturday when we use it ‘in rage’, properly finished for the first time.

A quick lunch, then Charles our new Head Beekeeper arrived.  Over to the hives, then!

Today, we would be swapping over the lower dark drown brood boxes that came with the bees for more of our new brood boxes.

The top of the hive off, along with the top super and queen-excluder.Because we currently have three hives, Jon, Shaun and I were each ‘chosen’ to go in the hives with Charles keeping an ever-watchful eye on us to make sure we didn’t make any stupid mistakes.

You may think that this is easy, but take it from me, there’s been so much to learn about these little creatures in so short a time, each of us was ‘on edge’ when faced with a hive with more than 30,000 bees in!

This shot to the left shows yours Charles and I after we’d taken the top of the hive off checking the top brood box for signs of the queen laying eggs in it.

Happily, there were plenty of newly laid eggs in abundance.Checking for brood and for the queen.

Here I am to the right here, checking the top brood box, and you can clearly see the frame with new comb on it built in only a few days by the workers.

At this point, I must say that even though this may look an easy thing to do, it’s really not!  Making sure you pick the frames up in the correct manner, disturbing the bees as little as possible is pretty difficult stuff -especially for ‘newbies’!

The queen wasn’t in this top box -she’d wisely gone straight down into the lower box to get away from all the confusion, noise and light from above.

So that meant she was in the bottom box -the one we were going to swap.

Carefully lifting the bottom brood box.This shot is as I lifted the old brood box off the hive floor.  I carefully placed this to one side, always conscious that there was a valuable queen in there.  If I was to accidentally squash her, we’d lose at least a couple of months’ worth of honey production.

With the old brood box safely off, Charles carefully inspected the hive floor for signs of varroa mite and finding only a couple, I replaced it with a brand new brood box.

To the right here you can see Shaun as he is placing the old frame into his new brood box, and you can see how carefully he’s inspecting the frame.Shaun carefully inspecting each frame.  He’d never been inside a hive before -he missed the last bee training course- so he was especially in awe of the bees.

To say he was a complete beginner, he did very well, though -You really wouldn’t have known it was his first time, he handled them that well!

Jon did all the above for the last frame, but for some reason, I have no shots of this.  Take it from me though that he handled himself very well!

All too soon (…it seemed!..), it was time for Charles to leave.  I thought he’d only been around a matter of minutes, but when I checked my watch, I found well over an hour had passed!  Astonishing.

After Charles had gone (…along with most of the afternoon, it seemed!..), we went back to check the clay oven.Finally finished and fired-up!

The roaring flames had died down pretty much, but the heat still coming off it was terrific!

We did notice that by the chimney the clay was starting to crack, but Shaun found some unused clay mix and skilfully patched it, and it now looks as good as new.  We knew this would happen -it’s happened on every layer so far, and we were satisfied that the cracks can only be about 3 inches deep -through one layer.

In total, the walls of this oven are in excess of 9 inches thick.

Yes, that’s quite a lot of clay -but sooooo worthwhile!Ian and I, happy after our puddling efforts today.

Tomorrow, after a hopefully brief visit into town to ‘see a man about a cat’ (…bit like ‘a man about a dog’, but this is a feline household…), I’ll be straight back here to carry on with the electronics and hopefully the programming for the electric bikes.

Of course, this will be after I’ve changed the screen that arrived today in that camera so I can present it to Matt on Saturday, fully fixed and working.  I may even charge the battery for him.

He will be pleased!

So, this last photo here to the right of myself and Ian kind of sums up the feelings of all today’s volunteers after a hard day’s work.

Tired, but happy.

More on Saturday, but this time with added pizza.

Yum to that!



As we’d arranged yesterday, I went down to The Plots for a little before 10.00 this morning.

I was first to arrive, so busied myself opening up the top metal shed and getting stuff ready for today’s action.

Obviously, little Mitzi-Moos sauntered over to see what all the fuss was about, and obviously, I made feeding her my top priority.

They say that: ‘Hell hath no fury like a scorned woman’.

This may be true, but you can take it from my own personal experience that: ‘Hell hath no fury like a hungry cat’.

For today’s fun, I needed the clay we’d puddled yesterday plus a load of straw that Diane had got some months ago.  I also needed the ground sheet down, a humper partially full of cold water and a couple of clean towels from my gaff to dry my feet on later.  Today, I was going ‘bareback’ right from the start -no pratting about with wellies for me!

Just as I started to think about taking my shoes off and getting stuck in, Jordan arrived on his bike, so when we’d safely stowed that, I explained the mission in hand.  Well, he was into it straight away -shoes and socks off before I’d even unlaced my boots!

Like yesterday I didn’t take any pictures of our dancing on the clay and straw because I feared for my camera, but take it from me, we had a Big Lot of fun!

The trick we found was to take the clay then really stamp it all out as big and flat as possible to get the greatest possible surface area.

Then, I liberally sprinkled handfuls of dry straw all over the top.  We then ‘folded’ the clay over by lifting up the edges of the polythene ‘tarpaulin’ we’d used yesterday until it fell in on itself.  We then continued to trample the clay, getting as much of the straw well mixed into it as possible.

When this was as large and flat as it was the first time, we’d sprinkle some more straw over it and repeat the folding process all over again.  All great fun, and much easier than yesterday and we found that our feet didn’t get half as messy either.The start of the seond, straw layer.

After about half an hour of this, we thought we’d got the straw mixed in well enough to start the really fun part of putting the clay onto the oven itself.

At this point, Matt arrived, so that made it much easier.  I could be ‘strawing-up’ the clay while he ‘domed it’ in place.

To the right here is the only bit of actual ‘plastering’ I did today -Matt and Jordan did all the rest, but they were quite happy doing this and they made such a marvellous job, who was I to argue?

They layered up the clay in the same way as we’d put the first layer on the sand dome last year -starting around the bottom and laying ‘sausages’ of the clay-straw mix all around, then moving up a layer and carrying on.Matt and Jordan having fun!

To the left here, you can see them both hard at work, and you can clearly see how this layer was building up.

The rate they were using this clay, I soon realised that I’d have to get a move on to keep up with them -I didn’t want them waiting around for me to finish!

The next load I did was one of the ‘load-and-a-halves’ from yesterday.  These were two loads that Shaun and I had done, but the one that Diane was working on was a little too ‘runny’, so we split it across our two loads and mixed it in well to get it to a better consistency.

In went a Big Lot of straw, and away I went, happily bouncing around as if I was at step classes.  All I needed was a bright leotard and some mindless pumping disco music at full volume.

Luckily, even though I had my radio with new batteries in it around, I forgot my leotard, so the Good People of Southey were spared.

With hindsight, this was probably for the best.A monk's 'tonsure'?

After I’d done this ‘load-and-a-half’ I was sure this would be enough to finish the whole dome, so I washed my feet, dried them and put my shoes and socks back on.

But as this photo to the right shows, I was wrong!

Anyway, it was gone 1.00pm, and time for lunch.

While Jordan and I went up for a sandwich from up the road, Matt put the kettle on for a well-deserved cup of tea.

After lunch, Jordan had to go, but I took my shoes and socks off again, and did a little dancing over a smaller amount of clay for this area and for around the hatch.

I did this in no time, and Matt skillfully finished it off so we could light it.

Now, I said yesterday that we’d cook some lunch on it, but what with one thing and another, we decided not to.  We’ll save the cooking for another day!Finished!

To the left here, you can see it after we’d lit it, and please don’t be put off by its ‘scabby’ appearance!

As I’ve previously said, this layer is mainly for insulation, and will be totally covered up.

Tomorrow afternoon, Matt and I plan to resume with the final layer which will be smooth and perfect.

We have about a mix of puddled clay left, so my job will be to puddle some more while Matt carries on with this final, beautiful layer.

Matt is already thinking of the kinds of artwork it will have, and I for one can’t wait to see what he comes up with!

Watch this space for more details!

Well, at first glance it may look like that, but its really not.Base for the pizza oven.

Because we never dug through the concrete beneath it, its very shallow.

Unfortunately nothing like deep enough to throw a Plot Kid down and make a wish.

So I popped down to The Plots briefly this afternoon to see how everything was progressing, and as you can see, its going very well.

All we need now is another good layer of broken stones inside the top, a layer of cement on that then a layer of sand to carefully sit the fire bricks on.

Now, we’ve had some slight difficulties with these firebricks.  Other ovens have them made with standard house bricks, but we figure that ours is going to get very hot very quickly -we can’t wait three hours for it to heat up!  Yes, we probably could get away with standard ones, but we figure we’ve saved so much money on the build thanks to our friends at VINCI Construction and their gifts of sand and cement, we’d order the proper high-temperature bricks in specially.  So, they should arrive before the weekend (…hopefully!..), and that will give the ‘Top Table Fire Boys’ enough time to get everything built so that next week, we can start ‘puddling’ the clay and sand.  We then have to fashion a dome to the exact shape of the inner of the oven, then cover it with a layer of clay.Inside with the rubble.

Then the fun really starts as we have to cut out a small chimney and an entrance way.

Anyway, there’ll be many more pictures along the way and you’ll see exactly how its done.

Checking the BBC weather website tonight shows hardly a cloud in the sky for the rest of the week, with temperatures as they should have been in July and August.

Perfect weather for finishing a clay oven?

More very soon…

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