Igniting Community

By / Photography By Abby Cooper | October 10, 2016
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As they strike the match and stoke the fire, Mete Pamir and Tom Marcantonio, members of the Bayshore Park Community Garden and Oven, describe the intense energy generated by the outdoor, wood-fired community oven. It hits a peak temperature of 800F, produces more than one million BTUs (compared to 20,000 BTUs produced on average by residential barbecues) and can retain heat, at temperatures suitable for baking, for more than 18 hours.

But beyond the oven's impressive technical specifications, Pamir says the oven has a different type of energy. "It's like it has a community gravitational field," he says, "one that engages people." And in a community as ethnically diverse as Bayshore, it's pulling residents together through a common experience.

The idea to build the oven initially came in 2012, as members of the Bayshore Park Community Garden were building the first 20 garden plots. "During the build, we were having lunch," says Pamir, "and that's the first conversation I remember. We said, 'wouldn't it be nice to have an oven here'.

"Most of the people building the garden and living in this neighbourhood, have some recollection of such ovens. For many, their home country is in what I call The Oven Belt, where, geographically, all the way from Afghanistan to Morocco to Québec, you have different versions of these ovens around the world."

Pamir remembers similar ovens from his childhood. He moved to Ottawa after studying and teaching sociology and political science at the University of Bergen in Norway, but he grew up in Turkey.

"Living in Istanbul, I remember, not community ovens as such, but there was a commercial oven in each neighbourhood where you could take your breads and casseroles. When I was a kid, I used to carry these trays to the oven and would pick them up for my mom."

After building the gardens, Pamir and a core group of volunteers set to work researching ovens in other communities, such as the one in Dufferin Grove Park, one of more than a dozen ovens operating in Toronto, before applying to the City of Ottawa's Better Neighbourhoods programfor funding. Armed with the city's support, the group hired John McDougall, a masonry builder from Perth, to build Ottawa's first community oven, and launched it in November, 2014.

Even on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, it is clear the oven draws people in — curious bystanders stop to ask questions, others tour the adjacent garden and neighbourhood children gather under the tent to watch the activity surrounding the oven and to sample the fresh-baked, sugar-topped naan.

Dhanalakshmi Sulegai is one of eight volunteers trained to safely operate the oven. Sulegai moved to Ottawa two years ago with her husband and their two children from Bangalore in southern India.

"Naan is a staple of the Indian diet, but surprisingly, in a typical Indian household, you wouldn't have an oven," Sulegai says as she checks the temperature of the oven. "If I would have naan, it would be at a restaurant where they have the clay ovens, called a tandoor. It's not feasible to have an oven at home that operates at such high temperatures.

"So this is exciting for me. Being a part of the oven here has actually given me an opportunity to experiment with cooking and baking different types of foods, which I have never had before."

Taking inspiration from other bakers and cultures, Sulegai is looking forward to trying her hand at a few Mediterranean sweets — basbousa, a semolina cake and kataïfi, a shredded-phyllo pastry.

With a growing following of regular bakers and pizza-making enthusiasts, the Bayshore Park Community Garden and Oven Association hosts biweekly bake days year-round and frequent gatherings where willing participants can share their food, recipes and stories at the end of a bake day. The oven is even available for private bookings, complete with an oven operator.

Community bakers from across Ottawa, can also test their skills at the Bayshore Community Oven's annual Harvest Fair on Saturday, Sept. 17, from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. The event includes baking contests — such as sweet and savoury pizza competitions — crafts and childrens' activities.

"The Harvest Fair is an opportunity to use the oven as a community gathering space — to use and showcase the capacity of the community to organize the event, grow produce, cook food and enjoy the activities together," Pamir says.

Bayshore Communtiy Garden and Oven
175 Woodridge Cresc., Ottawa, Ont.

Article from Edible Ottawa at http://edibleottawa.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/igniting-community
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