A pesto pizza being placed on an 800°F stone to cook. A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo courtesy of Katherine Barrett.

ON A CRISP SATURDAY AFTERNOON, Lorrie Rand savours a lunch of baked arctic char and roasted carrots while she chats with friends and neighbours. Not far away, a father and son test steaming rice-stuffed squash and decide that it’s done to perfection. Dave Courtney, meanwhile, nudges glowing coals into a pile and eases pesto pizza onto the 800°F stone.

Rand, Courtney and the families here on the Common in downtown Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, belong to a group called PACO, or Park Avenue Community Oven. Committed members and curious residents gather every Saturday in the 120-hectare park and recreation area to stoke the flames of the region’s first wood-fired community oven.

The idea for an outdoor oven on the Dartmouth Common sprouted in early 2012, inspired by the local community gardens. Building a four-season oven next to existing garden plots seemed an innovative way to entice more people to share and enjoy fresh food. The group approached their city councillor and she loved the idea, forked over $20,000 of discretionary funds and gave PACO the go-ahead.

“We were surprised at how fast it all came together,” says Rand.

Surprised by the speed, but thrilled by the results. PACO enlisted seasoned natural builder Gena Arthur and her company, Eco-Developments. Arthur has built more than 25 earth ovens for private clients in Nova Scotia, but designing a community oven for use on public land presented new challenges. The oven had to comply with park safety codes, yet remain accessible to the community. The resulting structure, completed in September 2012, is one-of-a-kind: a domed clay oven (about four feet in diameter) atop a stone foundation, surrounded by a 12 x 12 foot clapboard hut. With the walls of the hut closed the building resembles a woodshed, and the dark green siding blends with the grassy hills and deciduous trees that surround it. But with just a few hands and minutes, the hinged clapboard opens to reveal doors, awnings and three stainless steel countertops – the “woodshed” morphs into an outdoor community kitchen.

“We call it our transformer-oven,” Arthur says. “And we managed to source all those materials locally: the clay, stone, wood, even blacksmithing for the oven door.”

The Park Avenue oven may be new to Dartmouth, but sharing fire is as old as cooking itself – and just as practical. Clay ovens take several hours to reach baking temperature, but once the coals are hot, pizza will cook (and feed a crowd) in 60 seconds. While the oven cools (a 24-hour process), meat and vegetables can be simmered, preserve jars sterilized, fruit dried and yogurt cultured. Dividing the day-long cycle of heating and cooling among the community makes sense. In many countries, particularly those around the Mediterranean, public ovens still draw bakers into town squares. Canada has seen a slow-burning revival over the past decade or so, with Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal and Placentia, Newfoundland, among the places that now boast communal wood-fired ovens.

For PACO, reviving the art of community cooking has also sparked a bout of community learning. After funds had been transferred and construction began, the group discovered that not all local residents shared their passion for an earth oven on parkland. But now that pizzas are sizzling in the finished structure and many of those residents have come out for a taste, PACO feels the neighbourhood is on board. They do advise, however, that oven enthusiasts consult the community well before breaking ground.

As for the cooking, Rand says, “We’ve had a few singed eyebrows, but most of the meals have turned out really well.”

Between May and November, PACO offers training each Saturday morning – how to light and maintain the fire, basically – and everyone must attend a training session before using the oven. Within its first few months of operation, PACO trained enough intrepid cooks to see pumpkin tart, bagels, dried tomatoes and dozens of pizzas emerge from the brick hearth.

“The local foodies know all about us,” Rand says, “but we also want to appeal to people who might not normally bake their own bread or pizza.”

The streets around the Dartmouth Common are home to many youth groups, half a dozen churches and several seniors’ residences. PACO hopes these organizations, as well as families, individuals and businesses, will take advantage of the  oven. No doubt PACO will get their wish – news of the Park Avenue oven has quickly spread among locals and beyond central Dartmouth. In fact, parks and community groups from around Nova Scotia and as far afield as Ireland have contacted Arthur to ask about creating similar projects in their regions.

Arthur understands the attraction: “Wood-fired food tastes fantastic,” she says. “And besides, people love fire. There’s just something magical about it.”

Certainly, PACO has witnessed some of that magic. “I thought folks would cook and enjoy their own food,” Rand says, “but almost everyone brings extra, enough
to share.”

On a Saturday afternoon in late November, Dave Courtney pulls cheese bread and a golden calzone from the oven with a wooden peel. He slices both on the stainless steel counter and the scent of tomato and parmesan fills the air. He hands slices to his two daughters, then gestures to the group still lingering around the warm oven. “Help yourself!” he says. And they do.

Nova Scotians can contact Eco-Developments (eco-developments.ca), the Ecology Action Centre (ecologyaction.ca) and/or South Shore Social Ventures (theblockhouseschool.org) to get involved. Alternatively, you could organize your community to build an earth oven or root cellar, or seek out and support ones that already exist.

Check out the accompanying piece, "Some Keep it Cool," about Nova Scotia's root cellar revival, in the Greenbelts issue.

Katherine J. Barrett holds an MSc in Microbiology, and a PhD in Botany and Ethics, both from the University of British Columbia. She is the founder and chief for Understorey Magazine and an editor with the Afghan Women's Writing Project and Demeter Press. Katherine has published numerous scholarly articles, essays, columns and short stories. She lives in a small town in Nova Scotia. 

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