When the dough was properly mixed and kneaded, Celestino, a talented mime who kept me in stitches much of the night, used the pneumatic hoists on the mixers to raise and tilt the dough into the forming machine. This monster simultaneously weighed, divided and spat out panoni doughs with a very satisfying “splort!” The doughs rolled down a chute and onto a forming machine which rolled them down another chute as perfectly round doughs which Celestino placed, two abreast, down the length of a proofing tray about 14” wide and 6’ long. The trays were about 4” deep and lined with lengths of cloth. The bottom one was on a tram, and as one was filled Celestino would simply stack another on top and fill it in turn and before long he had a stack of trays about five feet tall. The stack could then be moved aside and another stack formed.
By now Parmjit and Elio had finished their smaller breads, placed them on trays which they slid into a mobile cart and wrapped and covered the cart with cloths to provide a cozy proofing environment for them as well. Parmjit and Celestino then took a number of previously proofed doughs, expertly flattened then into something that looked like pizza doughs and, using a simple food can about the size of a 14 oz can of tomato sauce, created holes in the middle of each dough to create a sort of giant bagel and then placed them back in the proofing trays, Parmjit napping the cloth so that loaves could be loaded cheek-by-jowl and yet never touch. These would become ciambelle, breads about 14” in diameter and 4” high with an incredibly crunchy crust.
Meanwhile Giuseppe, undisputed capo fornaio, head oven man, called for two of the forni to be heated to 300°C (572°F) and the third to 320°C (608°F). Those babies were hot! Parmjit and Singh continued to monitor the firing process.
The real key to a forno à legna is in the brick construction. The heart of the oven is a round platform paved with huge bricks over which a dome of the same material is constructed, a so-called beehive oven. The design goes back to the ancient Romans and from them to the more ancient Greeks and perhaps from them back to the Egyptians. Easily 3,000 years old and still effective. That’s because terra cotta is capable of retaining heat for a very long time.
When the ovens reached the required temperature, the firing trays were simply retracted from the back doors of the ovens and the doors shut and sealed. If the fornaio needs to shed a bit of heat, by the front door of the oven is a small metallic box attached to a chute which can be removed partially or totally to allow some of the heat to disperse.
The bakers had already been working with incredible efficiency, but now the process became extremely intense. It was a thing of beauty. Singh had scoured the oven with a long-handled brush dipped in water to created the steam that gives good ‘oven-spring’ and gelatinizes the crust to give that perfect crunch. A stack of proofing trays had been positioned by the oven. Parmjit or Singh would grab the length of cloth on which the breads were proofing in the trays and give it a tug to separate adjoining loaves. Celestino would then pluck a loaf up quick as a flash so as not to distort the shape and place it on the waiting pala, bread shovel, which Giuseppe proffered to him, and Giuseppe would quickly run the shovel into the forno and with a quick jerk of the hands leave the breads in exactly the right position so that they didn’t touch another but the oven could be loaded to the max. And the process was repeated. Giuseppe loaded from left to right or vice versa and half way through the process all three men as well as the stack of trays would reverse position and the process proceed from the opposite side. When the oven was fully loaded Giuseppe slammed the door and sealed it below with a length of cloth soaked in water.
The first breads to be fired were the ciambelle and the first ones came out literally five minutes after the first loaf went in. Giuseppe wielded the pala again, nabbing a loaf, pulling the pala back and giving a small jerk backward to flip the loaf onto the threshold of the oven. Using his bare hands, which must by now have the consistency of asbestos, he then tossed it into a waiting hamper and another baker would stack it on end to create ranks and files of breads. (Continued below)