Outdoor pizza ovens provide an attractive and functional centre piece for landscape design...

Outdoor Pizza Oven - Higher Ground Landscapes, Hamilton

At a Waikato property in late spring, family and friends are gathered for an outdoor meal. There is the smell of wood smoke, toasted dough and sizzling cheese. The cook checks his watch, reaches for a long-handled paddle and, with a flourish lifts the food on to the table. It is a perfect pizza, the base soft and pliable, yet charred and chewy around the edge; the topping a colourful array of cherry tomatoes and basil picked from the backyard vege garden, plus molten mozzarella cheese. A second pizza follows in minutes, this one topped with artichoke hearts, black olives, sliced mushroom, shredded ham and more mozzarella. There is the clink of glasses, and plates are filled with different flavours all infused with a rich, textured, smoky flavour.

This is not a traditional Kiwi barbecue. The guests have gathered for the first tasting at an outdoor pizza oven – what Jamie Oliver describes as the “ultimate foodie ‘must-have.’

Since Oliver’s television series Jamie at Home screened in New Zealand, wood-fired pizza ovens have become a popular addition to the Kiwi lifestyle. Oliver says they are great for people who love fresh, healthy food and cooking outdoors. “Home-made pizza is one of the cheapest, healthiest and tastiest fast foods on the planet. Plus it is a food that caters for everyone,” he says, “especially kids.”

The craze has caught on in Britain and the US, where foodies are finding they can produce much better pizza than those bought chilled at the supermarket or which have spent 15 minutes sweating in a cardboard box. Even actor Gwyneth Paltrow took a break from her strict macrobiotic diet to join the enthusiasts, saying it brings and authentic taste of Italy to her home.

Kiwi converts say they are a great alternative to barbecuing and can be used to cook everything from roasts to bread. Hamilton woman Jane Blaikie who installed a pizza oven in her garden this year says, “They have this incredible residual heat. You can use them for roasting shoulders of lamb to making bread and vegetables. The kids love having friends over for pizza parties because they can choose their own toppings.”

Operating a pizza oven is simple. You light a fire inside using conventional wood (manuka is best) and firelighters, let the fire heat up then extinguish the fire and wipe away the embers. Food is placed directly on to the stone or slate base and cooked to taste.

A wood-burning oven generally takes an hour to 90 minutes to heat up. At its highest temperature – around 425deg C – the oven is perfect for cooking pizza, which takes around 90 seconds. A temperature of around 230deg C is good for cooking roasts or joints of meat. The ovens are also good for slow-cooking meat so it falls off the bone. The temperature is controlled by the amount of wood you put on the fire and the width of the door. The wider it is, the more oxygen enters, meaning bigger flames.

The high heat is retained in the oven for about six hours, which produces lovely warmth for outdoor gatherings, even in cooler months.

While they are becoming more popular today, wood-fired ovens (forno a legna in Italian) are centuries old and have been discovered in the excavations of almost every ancient civilisation. The ovens uncovered in ancient Pompeii are still in excellent shape, and could start baking today with only minor renovations. Virtually every Tuscan farmhouse has, or had, an original brick or stone oven, and many are still being used today. Early civilisations realised the appeal of taking food from the field to the fire and it is this simplicity and the taste produced by wood-fired cooking that accounts for their popularity today.

Hamilton man John Sherson previously cooked pizza in the traditional indoor oven. He says there is no comparison in taste. His son Mark Sherson, a landscape designer (Higher Ground Landscapes Ltd) this year installed the pizza oven on a base built of schist and railway sleepers, with a slate surface. Pip Stevenson and Leo Koppens, who live south of Hamilton built their own brick pizza oven after watching River Cottage, the UK television programme featuring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in which he built a pizza oven. “We turned to each other and said, ‘hey, let’s do that.’ They enlisted help from extended family and used materials that were close at hand. Pip says the oven has produced hours of fun with family and friends. The couple are vegans so they have been experimenting with vegetarian pizzas.

“After you have eaten, there is nothing like stoking up the oven and sitting back and watching the flames roar out the chimney top. We’re looking forward to another summer of pizza.”

Outdoor Pizza OvenThe perfect pizza

There are many arguments over what constitutes a perfect pizza. The modern version of the pizza base is largely based on the Neapolitan (from Naples) version, not as crisp as the Roman variety. The true Neapolitan pizza – with a simple topping of tomatoes, garlic and herbs – was born as a food of the poor. But these days “ultra gourmet pizzas” can have stilton and port as well as shrimp, saffron and even liquorice pizzas. Modern chefs say like any traditional food, there is always room for improvement and innovation. Sergio Miccu, head of the Neapolitan Association of Pizza Makers, says any complicated pizza loses its identity. He says the perfect pizza is the margherita: a 33cm diameter, 2-3cm high crust, San Marzano tomatoes, cow's milk mozzarella from the region of Campania and olive oil, all cooked in a wood oven after the dough has risen for nine hours.

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