Wood ovens have been used by bread bakers for very many centuries. India has its tandoor ovens, in use there since 2600 BC. The Babylonians, Egyptians and Israelites made flatbreads, until starving Egyptians accidentally discovered yeast whilst constructing the Pyramids and realised they could make bread rise, go further and feed more hungry mouths!
But what of the early Italian wood burning ovens? When did Italians start to cook with wood-fired ovens and what do we know about these?
Experts believe that the first wood-fired ovens arrived in Italy when the Ancient Greeks introduced them. Examples of Greek wood ovens, similar to those used in Naples, have been found, compounding this theory. But it is thanks to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD that we know more about the earliest Italian wood burning pizza ovens.
The town of Pompeii was famously destroyed by the eruption, with its citizens buried with all of their buildings, homes and artefacts as the lava wreaked havoc. Despite all being wiped out by the volcanic event, much was preserved for the archaeologists to examine and ‘digs’ have discovered no fewer than 33 domed clay ovens with chimneys and have even uncovered bread being baked at the time of the eruption.
We now know that bread was a big part of life in Pompeii, probably because the volcanic soils around the town were ideal for growing cereal grains. These were crushed, ground and processed in a mill and the wood burning clay ovens used in the town were the means of baking simple leavened breads.
The many bakers in Pompeii became collectively known as ‘pistore’ and they at first worshipped the god ‘Fornex’, from whom the word ‘forno’ is derived. On February 17, they even held their own festival for the god, this being known as Fornacalia. But a shift in emphasis came, with the pistore becoming more grateful for the fire in their wood-fired ovens than for the ovens themselves and so they later began to worship the goddess Vesta – protector of the hearth.
Whilst Pompeii suffered complete destruction, the tradition of the wood-fired oven prevailed in the Naples area, leading to the creation of pizzas, as we know them today, and the invention of the Margherita pizza in 1889.
The first prefabricated refractory pizza ovens started to appear at the start of the 20th century and wood-fired pizza ovens were rolled out by Valoriani, so that the Italian government could feed hungry villagers in the south of Italy after the ravages of the Second World War. It is said that America’s love of pizza stems from this time, with starving GIs who had fought in the war feeding on pizzas and taking their passion for this ‘new’ food back to the States with them, where the first pizzeria in New York had opened in 1905.
In the 1970s, Italians fell back in love with cooking in a brick oven and that leads us to where we are today, with Valoriani wood-fired ovens being a global brand, recognised for their superior performance and ability to bake or cook anything to absolute perfection. Falling in love with this style of cooking is easy – and if you do it, you will share a connection with the pistore of Pompeii and those that came before them. Now that’s something rather remarkable, isn’t it?