What’s ten years old, weighs 4,000 pounds, and travels the state spreading yeasty, cheesy love? Sounds like a graphic novel in the making…
If you’ve attended the annual Winter Conference at the UVM campus, then you’ve probably seen Enid Wonnacott happily tending her beloved pizza oven, warmed by her ski cap and whatever heat emanates from the fire within the oven’s blackened dome. Since everyone stops by for a slice of fortification on the way to or from a workshop, Enid can spend the day reconnecting with friends new and old.
The NOFA-VT mobile pizza oven is Enid’s love child, a project she nurtured from concept to reality in 2006. Recognizing how food brings people together and can initiate conversations about local and organic, Enid applied for a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education) grant that would help fund the oven. A mobile oven was essential as it would allow representatives from NOFA-VT to travel around to fairs, festivals, and farmer socials, fire up the oven, and crank out pizzas made primarily with ingredients sourced from local farms and producers.
“The oven makes NOFA a visible presence statewide and allows us to connect with people in their communities. At farmers markets, we purchase toppings from the vendors, and at festivals and farmer socials, we feature the veggies, meats and fruits of the host farm,” Enid explained. While most of us now take eating and sourcing locally for granted, that was a new mindset for many people back in 2006. “This project helped introduce eaters to the farms, foods, and flavors of their communities,” she added.
The Maine Wood Heat Company constructed the oven in 2006. The two ton behemoth is built onto a permanent trailer which can be easily pulled by any Vermont-worthy pickup truck. White earthen tiles form the floor of the well insulated oven, and it takes two hours for a clean burning wood fire to heat the interior space to 800 degrees. At that temperature, a thin crust pizza will bake in about three minutes!
A number of people have enhanced their pizza-making chops over the past decade, thanks to the oven. The basic routine goes like this: Arrive at least two hours before the event starts. Start the fire. Organize the equipment and coolers of ingredients. Divide the dough (usually made earlier that morning) into baseball-size portions. While the dough proofs, set up the tent and arrange the cooking station. Volunteers arrive to prep veggies and grate cheese. As the event starts, the crew begins to stretch the dough balls into rounds and load on the prepared toppings. The pizza maestro slides a 10 inch round pie into the blistering oven and removes a bubbling, fragrant beauty a few minutes later.
The scene draws people in: tables laden with luscious, chopped veggies; the aroma of pizza or other wood-roasted delights, the overall festive ambience. Conversation ensues as they wait patiently for the next pizza to emerge. Which farms provided the toppings? What are the most popular combinations? Ever try kale, apple, and sausage? Or roasted beets, a NOFA favorite?
Outdoor cooks learn to prepare for the unexpected. Tucker Levy, pizza master for the last two years, explained that inclement weather can add a whole level of complication. “Since we’re outside, cooking in the rain can be a mess. If the flour gets wet on the table, that impacts how the pizza will behave in the oven. If it’s windy, the oven doesn’t burn as efficiently. Anyone who bakes knows that temperature and humidity can affect how dough proofs. And we never know exactly how many people will show up at an event which makes it challenging to portion the ingredients. But that all adds to the magic of the experience because somehow, it always works out!”
This summer, the NOFA oven will be on the road once again. Here are the dates & locations of this summer's Celebrate Your Farmer pizza socials:
If interested in hiring the oven and a small crew for a special event, contact Enid at [email protected] or (802) 434-4122 for pricing details. “We’ll bring everything needed. Although pizza is our most popular item, we can cook anything in our oven, from roasted root vegetables, bread, meats, etc…” Sounds like a party in the making, thanks to a ten year old, two ton star of the road!d