The Wood-Fired Blog

Baking Bread in Someone Else’s Oven

I’ve been baking bread in other people’s ovens for years. It’s a lot fun. You get to experiment with flour and yeast from other countries, use different ovens, and bake entirely by feel. Forget the digital scale and baking stone, most rental apartments and houses don’t even have measuring cups. And besides, hand-mixing dough is a lot of fun. It’s therapeutic. A couple of years ago, I even grew a sourdough culture using plums straight from the tree. Looking back, that dough was too stiff and I didn’t give my bread enough time to rise, but I guess that’s a sign that my baking has improved over the years.

whole wheat flour


One of the interesting aspects of this experiment was that the flours and yeasts in the supermarket (Plodine) were entirely in Croatian. Often you see packaging with lots of different languages, where you can work out what is what. But in this case, I had to get by completely with pictures. So I went for the flour with the picture of a whole wheat boule on the front. haha. Luckily, whole wheat flour and instant yeast is what I got.

Of course with the help of a handy Internet translator, I now know that pšenični brašno are the Croatian words for whole wheat flour. Good guess.

My first trial was only OK. I was fitting it in between going out for the day and breakfast, so I basically mixed the dough, let it proof overnight in the refrigerator and baked it straight from the refrigerator (results shown above). It was OK, but not great, but I didn’t have the time to let the dough warm up and actually do the final proof — and besides, I always like hand-made whole wheat bread better than supermarket white bread, even if it isn’t perfect. Of course the basic white Croatian baguette was a lot better than our local Safeway bread (a lot better). haha.

The second time through I had a little more time, and was able to fold the dough twice and give the final loaf a decent rise before baking it. My dough was sticky, but I was able to work with it using wet hands. Here’s the fun part; take a look at the photo below. The slightly rounder bread at the top of the photo is the supermarket whole wheat baguette and the slightly flatter bread is my loaf. My crust was a little more crunchy and a little denser, and the crumb between the two was very similar. What a chuckle. I clearly ended up using the same flour that they did.breadI’m not sure where we’re going next, but I’m looking forward to trying out new flour and maybe someone else’s wood-fired oven.


Wood-Fired Croatia (or more accurately, Istria)

We just returned from a very nice trip to Croatia. I have wanted to explore the Dalmatian coast for years, and the timing was right this summer. Our older daughter spent the summer working on campus in Boston (a very cool research project on pre-fab building using 3D modeling software and CNC laser equipment) and she had two weeks off before the start of school. And we put it to good use. Fly to London (see family), fly to Venice, boat to Istria (in Croatia), drive to Dubrovnik (bottom of Croatia), drive to Zagreb (the capital), fly to London (see more family) and fly home. It sounds hectic, but it was really very nice.

Istria pizza oven

I thought I would have share a couple of the cooking and food highlights — particularly the ovens. I have written before that the pizza in Venice isn’t very special. I don’t know if it’s an urban legend or actually true, but the story I’ve heard is that Venice had real problems with fires in medieval times, which is why they moved all of the glass manufacturing furnaces out to the island of Murano and banned wood-fired pizza ovens. Even if it isn’t true, it’s a good story. Either way, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wood-fired pizza oven in Venice, or had a particularly good pizza (but I had some really good fish).

Then we took the ferry to Istria.

Istria pizza oven

Istria was different; it’s been called Croatia’s Tuscany for good reason. The region was part of Italy until the second world war, and it still looks and feels Italian. The road signs are all written in both Serbo-Croatian and Italian, most restaurants serve antipasti, primi, secondi e dolce, and Italian is spoken widely. Olive trees, vineyards, olive oil, pasta, truffles, hilltop towns, and pizza ovens. We came, we saw, we ate.

I asked a number of restaurant owners where they got their oven, and most said that they bought an Italian-made kit locally, and installed it themselves. I even recognized a few of the ovens by brand. The pizza oven tools also came from Italy.

Istria pizza oven

Istria pizza oven

Istria pizza


IstriaIstria is highlighted in red.

We knew it was coming, but you could feel the difference after we drove across the peninsula and turned south, down the coast. The Italian road signs, the pizza ovens and pasta served at every restaurant was gone. Along with our ability to easily communicate. The family can speak Italian, French and Spanish, and none of it did us any good. haha.

The good news was that we had entered the land of the wood-fired grill. Which was equally great. But more on that next.


A Few Thoughts on an Ironman

It’s been two weeks since I completed my first Ironman, and I wanted to share the experience with you. As a quick catch-up, I started training for Vineman in CA wine country, my first triathlon, five months ago, coming off a typical marathon racing cycle in December 2012. My feet and ankles were feeling a little beat up (tendonosis), and I wanted to take a period of time to focus on endurance, health and strength, without the pressure of running a marathon PR. So my first thought is that I did a pretty good job of achieving that goal. The training was fun, the race was a blast and I feel healthier and stronger than when I started.

A typical training week was 70 miles running, 180 miles cycling (lots of it on a stationary bike in the garage using an iPad), a couple of days of swimming for about 40 minutes, and 20-30 minutes of core and strength every day; 3+ hours a day on average. I slowed down training for the Boston and Big Sur marathons, but did not run those full out, so I was able to get right back at it.

Triathlons are a very gear-intensive sport.

Tri gear

By the numbers, I ran (did?) 12:32:01. That’s right. Twelve + hours, made up of the following:

1:22 Swim
6:51 Bike
4:00 Run
:17 Transitions

15th in my age group. 42 swimming. 40 biking. 3 running (my fault, I really should have been first; more to come on that).

As is the case with most marathons and ultras, we drove to the parking lot in the dark, and slowly shuffled our way to the start — where you set up your bike and get ready for the start of the swim. 5:15AM arrival and 6:39AM start.

I knew the swim was going to be my weakest link, and I thought it was going to be a disaster. My training times in the pool were not good, and I kept getting passed in the pool by little old ladies with water wings. I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble doing the 2.4 mile swim, but I was going to be slow; perhaps 1:30-1:45. The problem was that while my swim training times were getting faster by the week, they weren’t getting faster, fast enough. To where I decided to put more time into biking and less into swimming.

But what I didn’t know what what a big advantage you get from a Tri wetsuit. I rented a Zoot sleeveless wetsuit the day before the race, and tried it on the night before the race. The nice lady renting it to me kept asking if I had done any distance swimming before, or if I had ever swum in a wetsuit, and I kept smiling and saying no. These suits are really tight, and I went to bed worrying that I wouldn’t be able to breath.

When we got in the water to queue up of the start, it all made sense. I walked into the water, pushed off, and immediately bobbed to the top. Like a fishing bobber. So, I had a good chuckle, and thought that maybe I could do this.

The swimming leg itself was wild, and fun. We were started in waves, by age-group (with colored swim caps, so that you could identify your group), every three minutes. Which meant that you were passing people and (for me) lots of people were passing you from behind. Kicking, jostling, and even some profanity being hurled around as we made turns around the buoys. Really exciting, and as a friend pointed out, lots of testosterone flowing.

I fell into an easy rhythm and just cruised along. I thought I was going to be very near the back of the pack for my age group, but when I looked back, I could see that I was actually beating some of the guys. That was good.

The first transition was the more complicated of the two. You had to take off the wetsuit, put on your Tri shirt, clean the sand off your feet, and put on your socks, shoes, helmet, and GPS watch. Then throw all the swimming gear (including the sweats and shoes you wore to get there)  into a numbered bag, so you could pick them up at the end of the race. I did OK. You get out of the water and there are volunteers (great people) there helping pull off your wetsuit as you run along to find your bike. I got from the water to sensor where the cycling leg starts in 8 minutes. Not awful.

Funny. I spent a lot of time leading up to the race worrying about the heat of the afternoon for the run. But it never occurred to me that it was going to be cold cycling soaking wet at 8AM. And it was really cold and my teeth were chattering for the first hour or so. Who would have thought?

I put a lot of time into training for the cycling leg. Basically I was starting from scratch, and like my swimming, I knew I was getting faster, but I kept wishing that I was getting faster, faster than I was. I did a couple of timed, one hour rides on my new race bike in the week leading up to the race, to try to gauge my speed and endurance. I was hoping for 6:30, and pacing to 6:45. Between 16 and 17mph.

I had one hiccup pretty early on, when I realized that my back tire was rubbing the bike frame. It has been jostled somewhere during transportation and set-up, and I had to stop a couple of times to get it sorted out; and I even stopped at the first bike first-aid station to have a pro confirm that it looked OK. Lesson learned for next time.

It became clear that I was not in 6:30 shape around mile 30, when it started getting a little harder maintaining 17mph, and the muscles in my neck and shoulders started getting tired. I hit the half at 3:20, and knew then that I wouldn’t be able to do another 3:20 without having to put too much effort into it. I kept repeating my mantra: Finish. Stay out of the Medical Tent. Finish. Stay of out the Medical Tent. So I scaled back a little and kept trying to enjoy the day.

You can eat and drink a lot of the bike, so I had fun collecting Gatorade bottles and Cliff Bars at the aid stations, without stopping or crashing.

One interesting part of the cycling route was that it looped by our old house on Chalk Hill road; twice no less. If you’ve been following Forno Bravo for a long time, you might remember that we started in Windsor, CA, while I was living in Healdsburg and Italy. The house and the vineyard looked really nice. I planted a row of 200 Arbequina olive trees along the front fence of the property a few years before we moved, and it has completely grown in, and it looked great. Here’s to long-term planning. :-) I told the cyclist that I had been chatting with for miles that we were about to pass the house I had built — hammered every nail. Well, a large majority of them. She was nice about it and gave me a wahoo.

I made a small tactical error toward the end of the cycling leg. I had started to roll back my effort as the miles added up, and with 4-5 miles to go, I could smell the finish line and felt pretty fresh, so I cycled the last miles closer to 20mph. I felt fine, and I passed quite a few people, but what I would learn later was that I went into the run with my heart rate up a little too high. Next time, I will do a speed check and make up time leading into mile 100, and then really relax for the last 12 in order to prepare for the run. Live and learn.

The second transition was not my finest moment. I couldn’t find my race bag and was off by two rows in a sea of bikes and sports bags. I was wandering around looking for the green bag with my stuff. Not smart. I also realized that I had not “staged” my gear. Setting shoes, gels, hat, etc. right where I needed them. I had to dump everything out, sort through it, and put it on. Finally, I had decided the night before that I would run in running gear (loose shorts and shirt) rather than sticking with the tight Tri stuff. I hadn’t really trained in Tri shorts, and I didn’t want any huge blisters or chaffing marks. In the end, my second transition took 9 minutes. Ouch. The fast guys/gals do it in about 2:30. Another lesson learned.

The funny thing is that I was the only person on the entire race course not wearing Tri gear. I looked like a marathon runner who had got lost and accidentally ended up in an Ironman.

The marathon course was an out-back loop that we ran three times. So, it was roughly 4.4 out to a turn around. The weather was nice; much hotter than I am accustomed to, but it never hit the 90s. Getting on my feet after 8:30 in the water and on a bike felt good. Too good actually — I ran my first mile at 7:45. Which was completely unsustainable.

So I settled in, and enjoyed the moment. The first thing I figured out was that many Triathletes are cycling specialists, so there was a lot of walking and jog-walking. I passed hundreds of runners over the course of the marathon, and was passing people until the finish. All those people who had smoked me on the swim and bike legs. haha.

The course was pretty tough, with one hill that I need to walk each lap and a second hill that I walked the second and third laps. I hit the half at 1:51 and felt OK. I was still OK finishing the second lap, which got me to about 18 miles.

But the last 10K was tough. My stomach headed south, and I had to stop a couple of times and eat pretzels and water to keep from throwing up. The course was pretty much carnage at that point with lots of racers walking and stopping at the aid stations. Your thinking gets a little fuzzy at this point, and my math skills were suffering, but with a couple of miles to go, it occurred to me that I had a shot at breaking 4:00 on the marathon, and I ran the last two at 8:xx. My stomach had settled down, and I finished running really well, with a smile on my face. I just missed breaking 4:00, but the finish felt great.

I lost 6-7 minutes in the last 10K, and ran a positive 18 minute split (1:51/2:09) — as a runner, I should have done better than that. Still, I think I am in solid sub3 shape now, given the course and the conditions and the general rule of thumb to add an hour to your marathon time to get your Ironman marathon time.

Between my bike tire, my slow T2 time and my stomach issues, there was at most 15 minutes of lost time in my overall race, which means that I’m not quite in sub12 shape at this point. But I am in potential striking distance to possibly qualify for Kona in the next 2-4 years. I think I will need to go somewhere sub11 in the 55-59 AG to get there. So we’ll see.

Kona is the Ironman World Championship, and you get in by qualifying at a certified event. Qualifying it tough. Check out the finish at Kona.


I think some people do the Ironman once, and say “never again”. And I know runners who will never do another marathon. But I really had a good time. I don’t think this is the end of the line for me.

Going forward, I am hopeful that my marathon and Tri training will be compatible. What’s good for one, will be good for the other. With that in mind, I am getting close to making the commitment to take a stab at a PR marathon in December. California International Marathon (CIM) is early December; 17 weeks from tomorrow — I’m already registered. I think it’s going to take a serious commitment to specific marathon training (more speed training than I have done for the past 18 months), but I am hopeful that my legs and feet are strong enough to hold up to the pounding of hardcore speed training. My plan would be to do a complete marathon-specific training plan, while still doing additional cycling and swimming. We’ll see. I’m on 2:55:04 for the marathon, and 2:49:59 has a really nice ring to it.

If you’ve made it this far — thanks for taking the time to ready this!