Before the weather got too hot, we (or more accurately, Her Outdoors) got to play with the clay oven. Not just the usual bread making…

clay oven bread

But a whole roast chicken for the first time…

clay oven chicken

If you’re a meat eater – and have a clay oven handy – I can’t recommend this strongly enough. The wood-smoked flavour was incredible (although The Boy One wasn’t too keen) and final leftovers resulted in the best risotto I’ve ever made.

Here’s the book we used for the chicken instructions.

clay oven cookbook

Looking forward to many more experiments, as soon as the weather cools down.

Last week, Her Outdoors came back from the local garage fuming.

She’d just discovered that a 25kg bottle of gas (we use one a month for cooking) had gone from €26 to €32 in one hit – a massive increase in anyone’s cheque book.

Now, we might be able to stretch to this extortionate price hike, but why should we? Besides which, it’s not a sustainable thing to do. If you’ve read anything about “peak oil”, you’ll know that these increases are only the beginning, at the end of which there will be no more fossil fuel. No one can say when this will happen, but that it will happen is certain. We are living through a few fleeting years in planetary history where our species’ success is a direct result of the non-renewable resource beneath the deserts of the Middle East and, tragically, the soon-to-be-fracked green and pleasant lands around the world.

So how did we respond? We put the new gas bottle next to the cooker in the kitchen and didn’t plug it in. We took the cover off the clay oven and started to see our woodburner as something more than a way to keep warm.

That was nearly a week ago. Here’s a shot from the second firing of the clay oven:

clay oven cooking

o corn bread muffins for the following breakfast

o roasted squash and garlic mash

o beans for the next day

o bread rolls for the day after, too

o sausages were in the oven at this point

It’s not without stress. Learning how to keep the clay oven hot enough to do several things, cooking without some very specific tools that would make the whole thing much easier, and walking to and from the kitchen several times to fetch ingredients and utensils is all a bit of a pain. But there are huge positives.

Cooking is now at the centre of our attention, as a family. The kids were out looking for scrap wood for the clay oven the other day. They’re seeing meals being made in front of them, instead of in the kitchen 15 metres away (in another building). The Daughter even made dinner for her and Boy on the woodburner the other night. Only a simple one, but how many 12-year-olds in her class have done that this holiday? Or ever?

It’s too early to have a routine, but we plan on firing the clay oven about three times a week for baking. Probably a loaf of bread, then a casserole as the oven cools. Making pizzas is quite stressful and not enjoyable for the person doing the making, so we won’t do that too often. We use the woodburner most of the time which means the yurt gets a bit warm three times a day. Surprisingly, it boils water in a pan from cold almost as fast as our stove-top kettle did, so although it takes longer to make essential things, like coffee first thing in the morning, the inconvenience isn’t huge.

I could write a very long post about our thoughts over the last week, but I’ve got quite a lot to do at the moment. I realise this is not the kind of thing many people can do, but it is exactly the kind of thing we set out to do. Our original plan was to have a beautiful Esse wood-fired oven for cooking in the Winter and then find another option for the Summer. I suspect we’ll eat a lot of salads and barbecue when we need to. A friend gave us a solar oven that we’ve been using to prove bread. We’ll explore rocket stoves, too. I’m not sure how else we’ll be boiling a kettle.

Have we plugged the gas bottle in yet? Yes. My tractor doctor came round the other day to take a wheel away (I don’t have the gear to fix a puncture) and Her Outdoors offered him a coffee before realising the woodburner wasn’t on. We may be happy to live like this, but we can’t assume other people will understand.

This week, Her Outdoors has been adding to the clay oven, which had a door cut into the side of it (at the regulation 63% of interior height measurement) and a new layer of clay, this time mixed with straw. Right now it looks like this:

Slightly OCD readers will be alarmed that the image on the Sand Filter Cam has not changed all week. This has been due to a technical fault genuinely beyond our control and – besides – it rained at the weekend and the mud has been too treacherous to dig out. Happily, it’s dry enough to move now. Unhappily, it’s going to start raining again in the next couple of hours.

But I’ve kept myself busy clearing a space for the pond the sand filter will run into, turning some overstood chestnut into firewood for next winter, at the same time (and this really is exciting) creating our first coppiced area of managed woodland. It looks a bit devastated at the moment, but will spring back to life in the appropriately named season.

While felling these largely dead and dying trees, I did spend time thinking about the current UK government’s idea about selling off half the nation’s forests. I didn’t come to any conclusions, but think they should have the decency to call a snap election and give everyone a chance to kick them into touch. Buffoons.

Lots of people build clay ovens. This week, we started ours by marking out a circle on the ground:

Building a circle of stones using dry-stone-wall skills, with a thin layer of lime mortar to hold them in place (and stop hornets nesting in the cracks):

Completing the stone circle (which is filled with rubble that’s been sitting around up here looking untidy):

Laying some sand on the top to get it Really Flat, and placing some fire bricks (which have also been sitting around for a while) on top:

Making the inside shape of the oven, using bought sand that will be re-used later:

Covering it with newspaper:

Building up the first layer using our own clay and some more of that sand:

And finishing it just before dark:

We couldn’t have done this so fast without our new friends Ben and Anna who, for the second time this year, stayed an extra night because they couldn’t tear themselves away.

(Obviously, this wasn’t the only thing we did this week. We also cut, split and stacked a huge amount of wood, and dug a Very Important Trench. But it wasn’t all lazing around, enjoying the Relaxing French Lifestyle – we also ate great food, drank excellent wine, and stayed up far too late, far too often.)