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Kiko Denzer: Builder of Earth Ovens
by Katy Purviance on 02/21/10 @ 08:47:05 pm
Categories: News | 1438 words | 11787 views

I just learned about Kiko Denzer. He builds with earth. And his motto is “that what we learn to do, we learn by doing.” For those of you who know about my fascination with Nader Khalili, you can see why I had to learn more about Kiko.

Now, I’ll delight you with some images of Kiko’s work. Then, I’ll tell you more about his book and how to get it.

Earth Bench

Earth Oven

Making Pizza in ab Earth Oven

Earth Oven embedded in an Earth Wall

Kiko wrote the book Build Your Own Earth Oven: A Low-Cost Wood-Fired Mud Oven; Simple Sourdough Bread; Perfect Loaves.

Denzer, an artist and builder, creates beautiful wood-fired ovens using the most widely available building material: dirt. Some earth ovens are plain while others are formed into the shape of animals or human faces. Denzer offers an explanation of basic concepts such as material selection, oven location, and design and then guides readers through the construction of their own oven. Earth ovens could be produced most anywhere using Denzer’s instructions; he even shows how to build a weatherproof roof. A sourdough bread recipe is included. Appealing to a diverse audience of bakers, outdoor cooks, traditional crafts persons, and perhaps even homeschoolers looking for a project, this title should be part of most public library collections. - Review from Library Journal

This brand new, completely re-written edition features:

  • revised text: updated, expanded, and completely re-organized so as to simplify the making of
  • a super-insulated design that holds heat longer and burns less fuel; as well as
  • a simplified, 4-step recipe for making really good (wholegrain) sourdough bread - written by Hannah Field, a former professional baker who has worked in wood fired and organic bakeries on both sides of the Atlantic (also the author’s wife).
  • Also: a foreword by Alan Scott, grandfather of wood-fired ovens and artisan bread, co-author (with Dan Wing) of The Bread Builders, and an inspiration to many aspiring artisans;
  • an 8-page color gallery of beautiful ovens sculpted both by the author, as well as readers who wanted to share their work;
  • innovations and variations, like mobile ovens, super-efficient “rocket” ovens, hay-box cookers, and more.

You can find it for sale in the bookstore under Shelter/Building or at Amazon.

Build Your Own Earth Oven is a fully-illustrated handbook for making a simple, wood-fired, masonry-style oven. It provides clear, step-by-step instructions for building and firing the oven, as well as complete directions for making sourdough bread in the best (and simplest) artisan tradition.

Earth ovens are as simple as a southwestern horno or European bee-hive oven and every bit as effective as a fancy brick hearth or modern, steam-injected commercial oven. The dense, three-to-twelve inch thick earthen walls store the heat of the fire; after the hot coals are removed, the hot walls radiate a steady, intense heat for hours. The resulting steamy environment is essential for the crisp, flavorful crusts of true hearth loaves, and you can easily build it for less than the price of a couple of fancy dough-rising baskets!

If you like to cook outdoors, an earth oven can also transform fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs into delicious pies, pizzas, and other creations (one of my favorites is fresh vegetables, herbs, and potatoes drizzled with olive oil). Pizza cooks to perfection in three minutes, and you can even use the residual heat to dry your surplus garden produce, and incubate your home-made yogurt!

Building with earth is safe, easy, inexpensive, and extraordinarily effective. Good building soil is usually right under your feet! Many will find it in their back yards. Use it plain, or mixed with sand and straw. Build the simplest oven in a day! Adding a roof and foundation makes it permanent. The simple, round shape makes a beautiful garden sculpture, or can be sculpted into a fire-breathing dragon!

It is a project that appeals to bakers, builders, and beginners of all kinds: The serious or aspiring baker who wants the best lo-cost oven for their bread; Gardeners and outdoor cooks who want a centerpiece for a beautiful outdoor kitchen; People interested in creative uses of low-cost materials and simple technologies; and Teachers who want a multi-faceted, experiential learning experience for their students (the book has been successful with everyone from third-graders to adults).

Illustrated by the author with over a hundred drawings and photos, it includes color pictures of sculpted ovens and their builders, as well as further references on food, baking, and building.

A note from Kiko about the book:

The success of this book has been a (welcome!) surprise. Hand Print Press was launched with a fraternal, good-faith cash loan and 2,500 copies of a book about mud ovens. I thought I might be able to make some interesting sculpture with the books, if nothing else. 20,000 copies and about ten years later, Artisan bread is a multi-billion dollar industry, and sales of “artisanal” bread are growing four times faster than the business as a whole, and almost 20 times faster than white bread.*
*Source:, market research from Mintel Consumer Intelligence

I suppose in itself that isn’t so surprising. Specialty foods are a pretty safe bet, if you’re a betting kind of person and looking for faddish things to bet on. What has surprised me is the reception the book has gotten from all kinds of folks. Maybe it’s just a fluke of marketing and good fortune. Maybe it’s just the crest of the fad. Maybe (just maybe), it’s a confirmation of the basic precept of this little press: that what we learn to do, we learn by doing. And what can shopping teach us except debt and dissatisfaction? Man lives not by shopping alone. Nor does woman. Nor do we learn anything essential by it.

Home-made bread, on the other hand, is a basic (and tasty) antidote to buying. OK, that makes sense. And mud is simple and cheap and makes a good oven. OK. But it still doesn’t explain the kind of pride and pleasure evident in the notes and letters I’ve gotten from happy oven builders.

When I wrote it, I was mostly concerned about offering a way to make a good, cheap oven; the “art” was just sprinkled in because I’m a sculptor. But now I wonder? Maybe people want “artisan” bread because a good loaf, like good art, is unique and individual; an event that becomes a part of you.

Perhaps the ovens are real art that anyone can make; perhaps the bread is real food that anyone can make; perhaps, together, they are an antidote to the slavery of consumption, the endless earning of dollars to buy stuff we don’t need to satisfy desires we can’t name, understand, or control.

Perhaps artisan bread means more than just “complexity of flavors,” but also a complexity of relationships: In a traditional artisan economy, different artisans each made something essential to all the others. Their trade was true trade, not just an exchange of dollars, but an intimate interweaving of life and fortune. For example:

“Bernard Clavel, a French writer whose father was a baker, wrote that the bakeshop was on the way to local saltworks, and that his mother would open up at five in the morning so that the salters could buy bread on their way to work. His father sold bread to the wine-growers, some of whom gave a cask a wine in exchange, and to the wood-cutter (huge eight-pound loaves), who in return would deliver the wood needed to fire the bread-oven. When the baker ran out of salt, he would drive up to the saltworks to pick up a sack, paid for - in bread.” [see Clavel’s introduction to The Book of Bread, by Jerome Assire, Flammarion, 1996, Cited in Cooking with Fire in Public Spaces, Friends of Dufferin Grove Park.]

Obviously, we no longer live in such a society, but as much as people hunger for good bread, they also hunger for the kind and quality of relationship that produces good bread. I’m not saying a mud oven is any kind of answer, but it is extraordinary how the simple act of making an oven can give people a confidence in their own ability to participate in and enrich their own lives.

Since that first printing, Earth Ovens have been seen in Country Garden Magazine, Mother Earth News, The Chicago Tribune, the UK’s Petit Propos Culinaire and Permaculture Magazine, among others. I’ve heard from mainstream, weekend gardeners to “simple living,” back-to-the-land, “fringe"dwellers, Peace-Corps volunteers, to do-it-yourselfers, third-graders, graduating seniors, and other artists of all ages!

I am grateful, and curious to see what happens next.

– Kiko Denzer

Read Kiko’s blog and buy his book.

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