Dreaming of an earth oven – part 4 (the final act)

I’ve made it! Today is Lammas, the 1st of August, and the earth oven is completed! Well it’s nearly completed anyway, the final touch is to scrape out the sand from the cavity, keeping finger and toes crossed that it keeps it’s shape and doesn’t cave in! I’ll do that later today, so if you never hear another word about the earth oven, you know why…

In the last few days since part 3, the following things have happened: I completed the first layer and started adding the second, which had straw added into the mixture to help it bind. It was about 2-3 inches thick:

earth oven 2nd layer

Then, I cut out the door from the second layer, and added the final (cosmetic, not structural) layer, which is a finer mixture made with soft building sand rather than sharp sand, and has 1-inch long strips of straw in the mixture (couldn’t get hold of the preferred goats or horses hair, although I contemplated sacrificing my nieces violin bow for the cause):

earth oven - outer layer

Finally it was time for a few finishing touches. I found some nice tiles from a salvage yard down in Stirchley and inserted them into the final layer: Continue reading Dreaming of an earth oven – part 4 (the final act)

Dreaming of an earth oven – part 3

The race is on for Lammas now, Just 4 more whole days to finish the bread oven in time for the ancient harvest festival. Over the last couple of days, I’ve finished the brickwork for the plinth and filled it with clay and rubble:

earth oven plinth

This was filled nearly to the brim, and then the last 2 inches was just sand. Next I used block paving blocks to form the eventual oven floor, making sure it was nice and level;

earth oven blocks

Drawing a chalk line to mark out the perimeter of the oven cavity; Continue reading Dreaming of an earth oven – part 3

In praise of chard! And eggah!

chardI nearly came to blows over chard today. My colleague insisting it was disgusting and that you might as well “eat mud”; me waxing lyrical about the virtues of chard stalks (“the worst bit!”) fried in sage butter.
In a way she was right; for me the beauty of chard is that it does remind me of mud – earthy, minerally, nourishing loveliness. And every bite of the vibrant stalks is a mouthful of sunshine. Argh, how can she not like it?

Plot No. 85 has been producing a lot of the stuff recently, we can’t pick it fast enough, so there’s been a lot of chardy-dinners lately; barbecued marinated stalks at the big lunch on Sunday; pizza Fiorentina yesterday, and tonight, eggah!


Eggah is a middle-eastern solid omlette/tortilla, perfect for the mezze table, and eaten for hundreds of years to sustain pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

For my eggah, I added the blanched stalks and wilted leaves to some whisked eggs, with a pinch each of salt, pepper, and turmeric, and a sprinkling of chervil, and cooked the whole lot over a low heat in a frying pan for 20 mins – delicious!!! Made with eggs from our hens, and served with sugar snap peas from the lotti, it was virtually a free dinner too.

Dreaming of an earth oven – part 2

I’m rubbish at laying bricks. That’s my overall conclusion from the last few days of oven-building. ‘Leave it to the professionals’ would have been a good mantra, unfortunately I went for ‘rustic’ instead – perfect applied to bread, worrying when applied to load-bearing structures. Ah well, I’m sure it’ll hold, and at least it’s level. I’m not quite there yet, got a couple of courses to go until I can fill the middle with rubble and start building my oven on top – it’s been cheap so far though, only £50 to get the entire foundations and plinth built (i’ve been skip-diving for bricks for several weeks now)!

plinth nearly there
plinth nearly there

Next week comes the big push – I’ve got the week off work to build the actual oven, and with help pledged from a couple of people, that should be plenty of time. I’m still hoping to get finished in time for the Lammas harvest festival on 1st August, although I won’t be able to bake in it right away, it needs a few weeks to dry out. Though I will start the hunt for some local flour and recreate the effect of an earth oven by baking a ‘local loaf’ on a slab of granite in my regular oven. Check out the Real Bread Campaign for more details of the ‘local loaves for Lammas’ initiative and to check other festival celebrations near you. In the meantime if anyone knows of any good locally (to Birmingham) grown and milled flour, please leave a comment below…

The Big Lunch in Birmingham

biglunchMonths of anticipation and now only a few hours to go – The Big Lunch is nearly upon us! If you haven’t heard of the big lunch it’s basically an excuse to throw a good old-fashioned street party for the sake of it – For the sake of sitting down and breaking bread with the people that live around you. There seems to be thousands of these happening across the country tomorrow (Sunday July 19th), and looking at the interactive map, there seems to be a decent few in Birmingham – the biggest one will probably be the one in Ward End park thrown by Birmingham East and North Primary Care Trust.

Loaf is gatecrashing a big lunch in Kings Heath as we haven’t got round to organising one ourselves (*hangs head in shame*). If you’re going to a big lunch, are organising one, or just end up at one by accident, send a photo and brief description to info@loafonline.co.uk, and we’ll get a gallery and roundup up on here next week!

Dreaming of an earth oven – part 1

www.earthovens.co.uk started it – a Sunday afternoon’s lazy random browsing on the internet clicking from link to mindless link, and all of a sudden I’d found my new project – I wanted an earth oven!!! So I enrolled on the course, last May, on a rainy Herefordshire weekend, and spent two days with 8 fellow dreamers learning how to build a traditional bread oven out of mud. A fab weekend it was too, despite the inclement weather – excellently facilitated by the knowledgeable and laid back Richard Scadding, and hosted in a friends idyllic converted chapel in the Marches, complete with existing bakehouse and earth oven, which produced some fine baked goodies throughout the weekend.

digging the foundations
digging the foundations
mixing concrete
mixing concrete
tapping and smoothing
tapping and smoothing
the finished foundations
the finished foundations and bakehouse

Anyway, that was 2008, enough deliberation. I have been champing at the bit for over a year now, and finally my own project is under way – I’m aiming to finish in time for Lammas, the ancient harvest festival celebrated by baking a loaf with autumns first grain, on 1st August. Check out the Real Bread Campaign for other events happening in celebration of Lammas.

I’ll be hijacking loafonline to chart the highs and lows of the project over the next few weeks, and if anyone wants to get involved then drop me a line at info@loafonline.co.uk – any willing feet for puddling, or bricklaying expertise will be gratefully received! I’m also hoping to share the finished oven too, not just keep it to myself, perhaps get some community baking going – so if this sounds up your street, do get in touch.

This weekend, with a little help, the foundations got dug, and the concrete got poured. I’ve also had a shelter/bakehouse built by a carpenter friend, which eventually will have a sedum roof on top. The foundations are a foot deep as I think the plinth and oven combined will potentially weigh a couple of  tons! As the photos show, the plinth is circular and about 4 foot across. The concrete was poured on Sunday and is nice and hard already so I should be all set for starting the brickwork this weekend, I’ll let you know how I get on!


Taste of Birmingham 2009 Review

The OrientalThis was loaf’s first year at Taste of Birmingham. We went on opening night (Thursday 9th July), with a small budget, on the hunt for real food from Birmingham and the Midlands. Cannon Hill Park was sunny and inviting, though the atmosphere was a bit like a high-powered networking event – packs of after-work suits stood around sipping champagne on expenses; loaf feeling a little out of place like we’d forgotten to get dressed.

Anyhoo, the hunt began after loaf exchanged it’s meagre funds for the equivalent in crowns (the official event ‘currency’ – £1 = 2 crowns). There seemed little point in having crowns (a variable exchange rate might make it more interesting) and some of the stall holders were unofficially ignoring it and taking cash with raised eye-brows.deli - taste There are 16 or so local restaurants represented, serving out three dishes each – the busiest were the big names (Simpson’s, Filini, Cielo), and those with the most descriptive menu’s (Thai Edge, Lasan, Fushion Brasserie). Mal Maison were twiddling thumbs most of the night – their menu (‘Mal Burger’ et al) could have fitted into one SMS to the organisers the night before the event. Disappointed by the absence of Turners and Purnells (loaf was assured they’ll be present on Saturday and Sunday), loaf opted for Simpson’s delicate and sweet carpaccio of sashimi tuna with summer fruits scented with basil and verjus syrup, followed by Thai Edge’s hearty lamb penang with jasmine rice.

The Small Producers Market uncovered one or two local producers – Just Oil producing rapeseed oil in various forms from it’s farm in Staffordshire, and the excellent Purity Brewing Company from Warwickshire, but the most exciting producer was Freedom Lager, a Staffordshire brewery claiming to be the only lager-only microbrewery in England. Both their organic lagers were smooth and enjoyable, and the company owner was selling the stuff, and clearly passionate about his product. With the strong influence of Heart of England Fine Foods on the festival, loaf hoped to have seen more  local producers than there were, but then the festival is more big business than earthy and organic, so maybe that was a turn off from some of the smaller artisans.


The entertainment highlight of the night was watching ‘Bobby’ sing Georgia on the BRMB stage, accompanied by the Jam House band – Bobby was a regular punter over here on holiday from LA, and was plucked out of the crowd to strut his stuff, a magical moment!

There’s still time to head down there for the Saturday or Sunday sessions, and it’s certainly worth a look around.

Photos courtesy of Greensnapper Photography

Taste of Birmingham 9-12 July 2009

taste birminghamTaste of Birmingham food festival starts tonight in Canon Hill Park, and runs until Sunday. It’s supposed to be a celebration of Birmingham and the region’s food culture, with 17 local restaurants taking part, and a host of food producers from the region exhibiting. Loaf will be there for the opening session tonight, and is equally hopeful and sceptical about what awaits. We’ll be on the hunt for local ingredients among other bits – a bit of research for the soon to be launched local food directory!

In previous years the cost has been somewhat prohibitive, but this year it’s much more reasonable (£10 advanced tickets), and is being launched by local agency Marketing Birmingham, so hopefully will be more in-tune with the local scene, and we’ll have less of the helicopter-travelling slebchef nonsense.

Expect a full review in the next couple of days, and some twitter action from the fest tonight – another reason to follow @loafonline on twitter! If anyone else will be twittering from the event tonight, leave you’re twitter name in the comments below.

La Banca Review

Bill for four including wine
Bill for four including wine

La Banca is a brand new Italian restaurant in the heart of Cotteridge village. It’s home is the old bank (hence the name) opposite the corner of Pershore Road and Watford Road. Opening night was the 30th of June, and loaf was there to soak up the atmosphere…

La Banca has little competition in Cotteridge – the clean but classical decor is a far cry from Greggs or Subway – and provides a buzzing, excited atmosphere whilst loaf awaits it’s dinner guests. The welcoming and obviously experienced manager, belied a noticeably nervous front of house, with the understandable opening night jitters: uncollected cutlery, unpoured wine, bill mistakes, and longer than usual waits for orders etc. The menu is probably a bit too large for a single cuisine restaurant, but with a notable absence of pizzas – perhaps investment in a proper oven will come at a later date. Pasta predominates, but there’s an enticing range of non-pasta ‘secondi’ too – the tuna steak with cold tomato salsa was tempting, but at £13.95 (the most expensive item) loaf couldn’t stretch to it in these credit-crunch times.

The menu is spattered with seasonal treats – chard, peas, mint; but there’s no claim that this is intentional, nor is there any indication of where they are sourced. Nevertheless, the food was good – homemade canneloni was executed well and served in a deliciously fresh salty-sweet tomato sauce, and the tirimasu was smooth and luxurious, if lacking a little of the expected alco-kick. There were appreciative noises coming from round the table and the portion sizes were about right if you’re having more than one course. The wine list is excellent, and extensive, with great descriptions for those as ignorant as loaf!

Overall La Banca serves good, well presented, fairly priced food, in a nice environment, which is an overdue treat for Cotteridge. The owners also run Pangaea in Kings Heath which is also worth checking out for a posh curry. For address details and menu etc, see their website at: www.labanca.co.uk


The Beez Neez

Went to the Birmingham international food fair on Wednesday evening. It’s a city council sponsored event organised by a French company, the first of what the council are hoping will be an annual summer event to replicate the popularity of the Christmas market.

I was on the hunt for locally produced food and found a great honey producer from Kingswinford (12 miles west of Birmingham), the Beez Neez. They sell a range of honey’s from lavender, to lime flower, to acacia, all around £3-4.

The best thing was that the bee keeper was also selling on the stall and very keen to offer an education in honey with every jar. I went for the lime flower honey, and it definitely has a noticeable citrus tang to it. If I can find some local stockists I’ll add to this post.