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Our traditional wood-fired bread oven

In 1996 tourism in Peru was still in its infancy and Peru had a hard time polishing its image abroad and convincing the world that it was safe for travel. At first there were mostly backpackers who came to visit Peru, and with them some artistic, bohemian, and adventure-seeking wanderers who felt attracted by the enormous potential and entrepreneurial opportunities they saw in a country that had to be built up again. Many of the latter moved to Peru - especially to the Sacred Valley, either temporarily or permanently, to seek a new life - and I was one of them.

When I bought my farmland there was nothing there, except some sort of shelter for animals with a corrugated rusted iron roof. I managed to make a living space out of it but of course, it was all very basic and improvised. I was about to finish the construction of a small house on the land when I met Wolfgang, a German baker who was renting a room at my neighbour's place across the street. Trying to make a living, he made bread for some ‘gringos’ living in Cusco. We soon became good friends. I was impressed with the way he was kneading wheat flour into a smooth dough with his bare and powerful big hands, with how he transformed his art into the most delicious bread I have ever tasted in my life.

We decided to construct an oven at my place so he could make more bread and expand his business. But it had to be the best wood-fired oven ever made. We took our time to investigate and talked with many (mainly old) people who knew the secrets of how to construct a traditional clay oven.

They told us that there should be no smoking pipe as this would bring the temperature down, and they described the kind of materials and process that was needed to build it. They never told us that the materials were the most difficult and challenging part of traditional wood-oven construction.

We had to construct a wooden brick mould to make the bricks for the dome shape of the oven, and the clay to make the bricks had to be prepared in a very special way. Normally clay bricks are made from a mix of fine clay, sand, water and straw, and then dried in the sun. Instead of straw, we had to prepare it with human hair… don’t ask me why. That's how it was done in the old days, they told us. So every day we went to all the hairdressers in the village to collect enough hair for our bricks.

Before we could construct the oven, we had to prepare the base; the foundation of the oven, which was essentially a hole within a circular stone wall. The hole of about 1,5m deep should first be filled with a layer of broken glass to reflect the heat, then a layer of clay, and then a thick layer of salt - about 1000 kg - to maintain the heat inside. This was then covered by another layer of clay and sand. The salt was easy to get as I live near the salt mines, but for the glass, we had to visit the waste dump of the village and look for glass between all the stinking rubbish and dead animals. When we managed to get enough glass and arrived back home, our bodies were starting to itch like crazy. The fleas were crawling all over and the best thing we could think of was to get instantly undressed and open the water hose to get rid of them; both jumping and moving like lunatics, like being drugged by a psychoactive ecstasy. Bloody fleas.

We constructed the dome-shaped oven on top of the foundation, leaving a small opening for the oven door. Now we had to finish it with heat resistant tiles for the floor and a coating of clay and sugar mix for the inner wall, to reflect the heat. Altogether it took us 3 months to finish the construction, but once the oven was ready and operational, Wolfgang made his bread on a more 'industrial scale', as the oven had space for at least 15 loaves per heating. Every day he went to Cusco with two big duffel bags filled with bread to sell to his “gringo” clients, and even to hotels. It is an amazing oven. You only need a few logs to get it heated at high temperature and the next day it is still hot inside.

After a year and a half or so, my friend Wolfgang suddenly disappeared. We never had a fight, we never had an argument, and everything was fine between us. He just disappeared and I have never seen him again.

I still have the oven, our oven, at the ranch but it is too big for personal use. We only use it when we have many guests at our house or on special occasions. It still works perfectly and it doesn’t have a single crack.

It's there, at the same spot we constructed it more than 20 years ago.

The wood fired clay oven is a symbol of friendship for me. If one day Wolfgang returns, our oven will still be there for him to use.

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