Pizza Oven Project From Jay Leshinsky, Renee's Garden Manager at Middlebury College Trial Garden
Growing out most of Renee’s Garden vegetable varieties at Middlebury College trial garden provides the tastiest vegetables for the student interns. What has frustrated us at our beautiful off campus and off the grid site is that we needed to take the vegetables elsewhere to be cooked and eaten. Things changed last fall when we completed our pizza oven project. Almost immediately our pizza oven-centered events became a big hit with students, faculty, staff and community members.
As with many of our projects (which are learning by doing) this one took a few years and several different groups of students to complete. After building a sturdy and attractive shelter for the oven, the students built a clay oven that began to crack after its first use. After more cracking, we took down the oven and built version 2. That also cracked immediately and got worse after a few more fires. Maybe it was the clay we used or maybe it was the construction technique, but luckily a community member who loved the vision of food from garden to table wanted to help. She gave us a gift that we used to buy a local, Vermont built oven. Getting a 2400 pound oven into an already build structure turned out to be quite the engineering feat, but the 2016 garden student interns and a fork lift operator from our college recycling center performed what I saw as a beautiful combination of fork lift elegance, on the fly problem solving, and lots of good energy! We completed the summer by enclosing three sides of the structure to keep cooks and food dry in rainstorms.
Learning to use the oven took some time and practice. Just like gardening we were working with variable components. Students experimented with different size and types of hard wood. They moved the coals to different locations in the oven, used different dough recipes and tried cooking different dishes as temperatures decreased. After burnt crusts and partially baked vegetables, we started to find consistency.
We not only were trying to find our sweet spot for pizza making, we also tried roasting vegetables like Rose Finn potatoes, sweet potatoes, Trieste Fennel and Torpedo Onions. We made fruit crumbles for dessert. One student cooked eggs on toast in a cast iron skillet put in the oven. As the summer ended we thought we were ready for guests. We started with small groups of returning students and college staff that had helped us get the oven completed over the last two years.
In the fall of 2016 we hosted a dinner for 60 college and community members as part of a college wide symposium. As the oven was heating up interns went to the gardens to pick Tri-Color Zucchini, onions, Profumo and Pesto basils and all three colors of Rainbow’s End Tomatoes. They were joined by early arriving guests who also helped harvest Gangbusters Spinach, Matilda Lettuce and edible flowers for salads. Zinnias from many of Renee’s mixes adorned the harvest table. A dedicated group of garden interns turned out pizza after pizza as the guests arrived. By time the meal was finished and the dishes cleaned we were tired but satisfied. We all left smiling after sharing a meal from our garden with so many community friends in such a lovely setting.