Greek Wood Ovens
Here is a fun report on wood ovens in Greece that I put together, along with a page of photos.
I hope you enjoy it!
Pizza Oven Photographs | Contest Entries - February 2011
The Greek Wood Oven
We recently returned from a summer trip to Greece, where we visited Athens and Crete. Along with the Acropolis and great beaches, I was really looking forward to seeing the Greek wood ovens. My curiosity started growing last winter when we were researching rental houses, and found that a good percentage of the houses on the rental market had a wood oven -- and of course we picked a house with an oven.
The first thing I noticed was how ubiquitous wood ovens are in Greece -- both in restaurants and at homes. On our first Sunday, we went to a nice Taverna with a terrace and a view, and a wood oven roasting lamb, rabbit and capon. Driving through the countryside, you could easily see wood ovens dotted around on patios and in backyards.
The popularity of the brick oven really struck home when we were driving between our two local towns (well, villages). In the industrial area on the outskirts of many mediterranean towns you will find a mix of light industrial companies and retail business (supermarkets, restaurants, kitchen supply, garden supply, etc.) who want to take advantage of the space and modern buildings located outside of the city center. What was interesting in our town (Rethymno on Crete) was that there are three wood oven manufacturers within 1/4 mile of each other. Not just distributors, but manufacturers, with huge brick cutting saws and oven forms, and inventory, along with retail sales.
Remarkable. I think this shows a couple of interesting aspects of the Greek oven market and economy in general. First, much like Italy, the Greek oven market is highly fragmented and characterized by a large number of small, mom-and-pop companies. These companies tend to consider their market to be their local neighborhood -- an area they can easily reach with their own delivery truck. They also consider wood ovens to be just one part of their overall business, which might include fireplaces, fountains and even building supplies, including bricks, roof tiles, concrete and mortar.
The other interesting thing this market density shows is just how popular wood ovens are in Greece. I have said it many times over the years, how the pizza oven is nearly as popular in Italy as the gas grill is in the US -- and this also holds true in Greece. Seeing three different wood oven companies on one road, where the ovens were lined up and ready for sale and shipment, reminded me of the first time I bought a pizza oven in Florence, Italy -- from a modern, big box retailer. You can just load it in your truck and drive off (which is what we did in Italy). I think that is really cool.
In addition to a brick oven, many outdoor kitchens have a real wood or charcoal grill (we used a shovel to move coals from our wood oven to our grill). The kits for both the grill and oven were on display side-by-side in many cases, and there are even options for pre-cast enclosures.
The next aspect that I thought was worth noting was how the style of Greek cooking affects their oven design. The traditional Greek wood oven does a lot of meat roasting and less pizza making. As a result, the Greek oven opening is higher than a traditional Italian pizza oven, to allow for larger roasts, and to correspond with the higher oven dome (for better retained heat retention). Even though there were a wide range of local oven suppliers, along with obviously site built oven, the higher shape of the oven dome and the oven opening was very consistent across all the ovens we saw. The oven dome was striking to my eye; it was so high.
I have to say that while I find the shape and design of the Greek oven interesting, it is not something that I would recommend to an oven builder. I think the Italian oven designs that we advocate, both with the Pompeii oven and through all of the Forno Bravo produced ovens, provide a better balance of performance for both pizza baking at high temperature and retained heat baking and roast for meats and breads. If I were to guess, I would say that the Greek ovens are made that way not for good design reasons, but more to accommodate old-fashion and inefficient insulators (such as clay and sand) -- and simply because that is how they have always built them. A Forno Bravo oven with a lower dome and 100% ceramic insulation is much (much) more efficient than the Greek ovens that we used.
Another characteristic of the typical Greek oven is that it they are almost exclusively made using discrete bricks; even modular ovens that are produced at a warehouse and shipped to the customer. Depending on the size of the oven, they can come in anywhere from one to four or five pieces -- where they are made in forms. The quality of the workmanship varies widely (very widely), from ovens that look pretty good to ovens that are extremely rough. I have posted photos on Fornobravo.com that where you can see. And as you might guess, we saw a lot of very large cracks inside the ovens that we looked at and used.
The last thing that I learned, and wanted to share with everyone, is that even in a traditional culture, with a long heritage of brick ovens and oven construction -- there are not many masons who really understand how a brick oven works or how to properly install a brick oven. At our rental house, the brick oven was installed with no insulation around the dome, and the finish stucco was applied directly to the outer shell of the oven dome (no, really).
In a “don’t do this at home” moment, I learned a number of important new things about what goes wrong when you install a brick oven incorrectly. First, because the stucco comes in direct contact with the hot oven dome, it expands and contracts when the oven is heated and cooled, and it quickly starts to crack, spall and fall apart. The stucco on our oven was literally falling off. Then, because the oven itself is not protected from the elements, the dome gets wet -- which causes serious cracking when the oven is heated and cools. Our oven had cracks large enough to let smoke and hot air escape through the dome and enclosure up into the air above the oven. Ouch. (Again, we are linking to photos where you can see the oven.)
So if you are installing a Forno Bravo oven or building a Pompeii oven, and someone tells you that they have installed outdoor fireplaces and they know how to install a pizza oven -- ask them some serious questions before you move forward. And be sure that you read the Forno Bravo installation instructions so that you understand the process and can make sure that your installer is doing it right. (Or, your spouse can read the instructions to make sure you are doing it correctly.)
And finally, I had real hands-on experience with how an under-insulated oven performs. First, maintaining the high temperature required to make nice pizza was a real chore. The oven kept cooling down and I kept adding more wood just to make 6-8 pizzas (olive wood, and I will write more on that a little later). Then, after baking a bunch of pizza and feeding a lot of wood into the oven, I closed the oven door to let it cool down for baking bread while we ate. Less than an hour later, the oven was too cool to do a good job of baking bread. I was really shocked. This was a standard 90cm/36” oven with a 3”-ish thick dome, and I had assumed that the oven dome had enough mass to hold enough heat to bake bread -- but instead, the heat had quickly evaporated into the evening sky.
By morning, the oven was completely cold.
All told, our new brick oven experience was a really fun part of our trip. The restaurants were proud of their ovens; they advertised them on the menu and on their signs and logos, and the waiters and owners went out of their way to talk about their oven and why the dishes were special. Exploring the countryside with a digital camera (or phone) to take photos of ovens in people’s home and ovens in showrooms was a lot of fun. And of course we had a ball with the oven at the house. We used it five times, making pizza, flat breads, hearth bread and lamb.
If you have a pizza oven at your house, you have a lot in common with a very large number of Greek households, chefs and restaurants. If you haven’t installed a pizza oven at your house yet, there is a lot to learn from the design, installation and cooking techniques that you see in a country thousands of miles for the US.
Re: Greek Wood Ovens
Great story James. I'm so jealous of your trip and know I need to get or build an oven!
Re: Greek Wood Ovens
Wow those oven are amazing! Even though i am more on sandwich making this inspire me on making other food or even pizza. I need to build like those on the pictures. Thanks for sharing your post.
Re: Greek Wood Ovens
Wow those are really amazing i can't help myself looking at those. I really need one for myself.
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