The Principles of Pizzaculture

As many of you read about in John the Intern’s recent post, we recently constructed a pizza oven from start to finish in our backyard. After taking some time to reflect on the process of making and using the oven, it occurred to me that it embodies many of the permaculture design principles . From the gathering of materials to the process of building it, to finally using the pizza oven for entertaining, I saw permaculture everywhere. Let me take you on a tour of the principles behind this backyard permaculture sentinel.

1. Observe and Interact

This principle is the foundation of permaculture theory: observing nature’s patterns and applying them to benefit both human and natural systems is key to living sustainably and in concert with our environment.

The four of us here in Wanganui have had the opportunity to meet, and thus observe and interact with, many fellow permaculturists. As such, we discovered that to be a true “permie,” one should have a backyard earth oven, preferably constructed by oneself or with a group of permie friends. Joking aside, we noticed that having a pizza oven could create an opportunity for social interaction in our community. Besides, how cool would it be to have your own handmade pizza oven?

2. Value the Marginal

This principle manifested itself many times throughout the construction stages of the project. Interpreted variably, “marginal” can mean the literal margin where two ecosystems meet, such as the land and the sea. This area, aka the beach, was a useful source of materials. Beach sand and clay were the two main components of the cob material that surrounds the oven.

Being an intern is hard work.

Our yard had also become a marginal area, as an abandoned lot bordered by neighbors looking for a cheap and easy way to get rid of unwanted items. Luckily for us, we saw opportunity where others saw junk, and were able to source our concrete support posts, as well as the roofing iron and scrap wood for the oven’s base, all from extra stuff we had around the property.

Concrete piles found nestled in the harakeke.

Finally, a couple items we used had been purchased from TradeMe, a site that gives “marginal” or unwanted items new life by transferring them to people who can use them. This was how we came to own the bricks and woodburner oven used in our project.

3. Catch and Store Energy

This principle is about efficiency, a design concern we considered frequently in the making of our oven. Using an existing metal oven as a base gave us a leg up by providing an enclosed space to house the fire. We improved it further by lining the inside bottom with bricks, which hold and slowly release heat for cooking even after the wood coals have been removed. The outside of the oven was also surrounded with brick to further increase insulation before the earthen covering was finally applied. In the future, we hope to make the chimney smaller to improve heat retention.

Interior bricks, the metal oven, exterior bricks, and the earthen layer work to retain heat.

4. Apply Self-Regulation & Accept Feedback

As with any project undertaken with minimal experience, this was a learning process involving lots of trial and error. I, for one, learned that I had insufficient arm strength to carry two 10-liter buckets of clay down long stretches of beach, no matter how I tried to carry them, and finally edited my load accordingly. The first time we used the oven, we tried making a stack of raw crusts and pre-baking them before the party to reduce cooking time and wait time later on. Unfortunately, the crusts all stuck together and turned out to be too thick, so we decided instead to make thin crusts on demand that could cook more quickly, and placed pizzas on top of the chimney for precooking before they went in the oven.

5. Multiple Functions

The pizza oven, as we call it, is more than just that. In addition to baking pizzas, we simultaneously sauteed peppers and onions in a cast iron pan underneath the pizza pan, pre-warmed pizzas over the chimney, and used coals removed from the oven to grill sausages on the side. In permaculture, every element of a design should serve multiple purposes. Our four-uses-in-one pizza oven? Check. Every function should also serve multiple elements. For example, placing the “on deck” pizzas over the chimney not only pre-heated them, but removed them from the work surface, put them in a convenient place for he-who-manned-the-oven, and reduced heat loss from the chimney.

The chimney pre-warms the pizza, the oven cooks pizzas and sautes veggies, and the grill waits for sausages.

6. Integrate, Not Segregate

The pizza oven was the life of the party. By combining the tasks of cooking and eating, the oven took the pressure off the hosts and gave their guests a fun activity to engage in. The project itself was also quite a conversation starter.

To help you start your own party, here’s a pizza crust recipe to try, in whatever oven you may have. If you’re really inspired, check out John the Intern’s post and try your hand at making your own pizza oven! It’s a permaculturist’s dream.

Pizza Dough (Adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook)

1 C very warm water

1 1/2 tsp yeast

1 T honey

1 1/2 tsp salt

2 1/2 – 3 C flour (we used half white, half whole wheat)

1. Combine water, yeast and honey; stir to dissolve.

2. Stir in salt and flour, mixing with hands when stirring becomes difficult. Knead in the bowl for 5 minutes.

3. Brush with olive oil, cover with a towel, and let rise in a warm place at least an hour. (We let it sit overnight.)

4. Punch down dough. Divide and press/roll out to desired crust sizes. (Note: This crust leans to the thicker side, so if you like thin crust, don’t be afraid to really roll it out.)

5. For thinner crusts, add toppings to raw crust and bake. For thicker crusts, pre-bake a few minutes, then add toppings and return to oven.

Bon Appetit!

– A. Lamb Down Under

2 thoughts on “The Principles of Pizzaculture”

  1. There is another advantage to pizza ovens: If you have a highly efficient, passive solar house, in the heat of summer you probably don't want to inject a lot of heat into the house by cooking – so you cook outside – with barbecue, solar cooker and pizza oven.

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