Al Forno! It’s Italian for, “from the oven”. This is how pizza, and many other dishes encompassing breads and baked pasta meals, should be cooked. There is a strong Italian tradition of cooking with wood fired ovens and flame-grills. This has spilled over into Italian restaurants and further, into other types of cuisine and restaurants, cafes, and people’s own homes.
The ancient method of cooking using the wood fired oven has spread throughout the Mediterranean, crossing countries and continents, and is now becoming increasingly popular in Australia.
Whilst it is often assumed that pizza originated in Italy, it seems possible that perhaps pizza-like bread first emerged in ancient Egypt – though not in the form that we know it now. The ancient Egyptians were some of the earliest bread makers, and we know that they used wood fired ovens. Indeed, wood fired ovens were used throughout many ancient Mediterranean civilisations.
In the magnificent ruins of Pompeii, over 30 fantastically preserved wood fired ovens have been discovered, many of them situated in shops resembling modern day Trattorias or Pizzerias. Certainly, the ancient Greeks used ovens to bake flat breads, as did, no doubt, the Lebanese. We know that the ancient Egyptians flavoured their breads with herbs, spices and other ingredients (even honey and fruit, such as figs or dates) that may have been available to them. It appears likely that they sometimes topped the bread with sauces made from pulses, which were probably akin to modern-day hummus (one of the oldest known dips or spreads). Many samples of bread have been found from ancient Egyptian times – some of them more than 5000 years old. The ancient Greeks topped their wood fired oven flat breads with cheese and other ingredients.
Prior to wood fired ovens, ancient races sometimes cooked using the ‘earth’ oven – which is still in use in many places around the world. Traditional wood fired ovens are usually constructed of masonry, but may be made from adobe (a type of clay), or even cast iron. In ancient Egypt, where bakeries were common, the wood fired oven was probably introduced during the New Kingdom. It had a cylindrical clay interior with a thick external coating, consisting of mud bricks and mortar. The bases of the ovens were open to the embers below, and the round, flattened dough was pressed onto the hot inner walls of the oven instead of a separate cooking surface. This pizza-like bread would drop off the walls when cooked, and had to be caught before burning up in the fire. It’s likely these ovens were used solely for this kind of bread, but separate wood fired ovens would have been used for baking a wide-range of other dishes.
The use of wood fired ovens became prolific throughout Europe during Medieval times, and often formed a focal point for the community. Sometimes it was the landowners or local government who built and owned the ovens, hiring them out for use (in a not dissimilar way to modern day Laundromats). Communal ovens used by villagers were often constructed like a small building, in the central square (or near the church and well). They were used to bake bread, pies, roasts, and even stews. A popular gathering place, locals would congregate to catch up on the weekly gossip, whilst cooking their dinners.
Wonderfully, this tradition continues today, in Albury, NSW, where a community wood fired oven was built in 2006 in Hovell Tree Park, and is maintained and funded by Albury City Council. The oven is free for the public to use and is fired every second Sunday. Find out more here: Albury Community Oven
“Horno” is the Spanish term for oven, and in the Americas (pre-Columbia) this is what early wood fired ovens were called. In some locations, in both the Americas and the Mediterranean, the ‘beehive’ shaped, clay-built wood fire oven were often seen.
Similar wood fired ovens have been known in; ancient Bulgaria, India, the Persian Gulf, Peru, Spain, France, parts of Asia, and Turkey. Many of the ovens in these places were used for cooking breads that may, in some ways, have resembled modern day pizza. In Quebec, wood fired ovens have been used for sterilising equipment, utensils and for drying out many items and materials.
Sao Paulo, Brazil, having a large Italian population, is known as the ‘pizza capital of the world’. There, 1.4 million pizzas are consumed daily, and they even have an annual ‘pizza day’ when the pizzaiolos compete to make the number one best pizza.
Australia too, has a history of old wood fired ovens (albeit small). In inland northern Australia, remnants of ovens have been discovered. Apparently made hundreds of years ago by local inhabitants and Bushmen, they were constructed out of large, hollowed out termites’ nests.
Arguably, the best pizza makers in the world do come from Italy, with the modern shape of the wood fired oven becoming established in ancient Rome. Neapolitans are particularly renowned for their pizzas – especially the ‘Neapolitan’ (with tomatoes and mozzarella). In 1889, Queen Margherita of Savoy was served with a pizza topped with mozzarella, tomato, and basil (representing the colours of the Italian flag) – and the name stuck.
Pizza making is taken so seriously in Italy, there is a bill before the Parliament to iconosize and regulate pizza – by only allowing certain ingredients and cooking methods to be used – when it comes under the claim of being ‘traditional Italian pizza’. Likewise, the European Union in 2009 granted “Traditional Speciality Guaranteed” to Neapolitan pizzas (specifically Margherita). This is additional to the “protected designation of origin” system already in place – which is similar to the protection for the names of ‘Champagne’, ‘Parmesan’, ‘Chianti’, and others.
In conclusion, whatever you have on the top of your pizza, and wherever you make or eat it – it’s always going be better, as history has proven over thousands of years, if it is cooked in a well-built wood fired pizza oven.
Eat In - Travis