Kathryn Tomasetti is an award-winning food and travel writer whose work appears in Delicious and The Guardian. Her favourite food is artichokes.
Granted, earth ovens are popular with people who wear Palestinian keffiyehs and grow their own organic tobacco. The sort of neighbours who dig giant pit roasts close to your washing line while shuffling Mumford & Sons on Spotify. These are guys (and it is mostly men) who play financial markets by day, then Hulk-out to Zuckerberg-style hunter diets by night. Some call them hipsters. Others use less complimentary terms.
It’s annoying, but such people are the genesis of humankind. When archeologists search for civilisation they look first for pit ovens. Fossilised berries prove that the savviest cavemen foraged - just like millennials on a food-for-free pop-up on Hampstead Heath. Reading matter beloved of today’s tweed waistcoat types (‘How to make ash bread’, ‘How to brew Sumerian beer’) chimes with earlier foodie mores.
That’s because earth ovens rock. Each civilisation pioneered an independent style of pit roasting, all sealed in with packed earth to slow-cook meats within. Crucially, greens from wild garlic to samphire would be layered alongside to steam ingredients within. If barbeques were Stone Age, earth ovens marked Amaretti biscuit levels of of sophistication.
Take the Incas of Peru. They constructed huge pyres upon racks of volcanic stone. Then they lobbed on unusual proteins like cuy (an Andean rodent) and llamas. In this instance maize, lima beans and sweet potatoes were piled on top before covering the pit. After a few steamy hours an entire wedding spread could be dug up. Dishes were paired with chicha, a beery soup made from three-day fermented maize. I’m sure it’s nicer than it sounds.
Despite limited contact between Fijian lovos, Maori hangis and Indian tandoors, dozens of stone-bake earth oven methods developed in tandem. A favourite is the Hawaiian kālua. The word actually means "to cook in an underground oven". Firstly a pit is inlaid with stones with a hardwood fire built on top. Then whole pigs are chucked on, with hot rocks stuffed inside for quicker cooking. Layer within ti leaves (Cordyline fruticosa, or cabbage plant) to exude moisture while cooking. Then shovel earth on top and party until dinner.
Mesolithic suburbanites can achieve something similar. A high welfare lamb shoulder will melt off the bone after a five-hour pit roast. Make sure your earth oven in layered with carrots, onions, leeks and the like to make steam flow through. And, safety warning, use non-porous stones to ensure they don’t splinter or explode in the fire.
Just one question remains. Will your neighbours want to share dinner after you’ve smoked out their entire Sunday?
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When cooking is The Pits: How earth ovens link hipsters with cavemen
Kathryn Tomasetti discusses this age-old cooking tradition and "tweed waist coat types" bringing it back.