Jemima Nelson Spring 2021
Even if just remotely, with the world closed, I was eager to learn the art of wood-fired cooking to finesse my non-existent technique, wondering how on earth to gauge the temperature for a start.
"One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi..." is the ‘hand held over fire’ timing tip from David Jones, who with his wife, Holly, runs Manna from Devon Cooking School in the village of Kingswear near Dartmouth. This was tuition I could easily absorb and relate to.
Jones can, of course, offer far more sophisticated advice and expertise, but it is indicative of the relaxed style of the couple, spreading the gospel of wood-fired cooking – and indeed cooking of any kind – without being in the least bit pretentious or preachy.
David and Holly met at university back in the 1980s. There was a shared interest in food and eating out, but the Armed Forces called, with David joining the Royal Navy and Holly the Army.
Back on Civvy Street Holly went to study at the Leiths School of Food & Wine; David became a ski and diving instructor followed by a walk round Africa, before settling into management consultancy.
Holly’s cooking career began to build, as a private chef in shooting lodges, helping out in restaurant kitchens, repositioning Natural Trust food and even writing a book about potatoes with Alan Wilson.
The husband-wife partnership took off when Holly was approached to run the catering at a Devon yacht club; David took a sabbatical from his consultancy and Manna from Devon was born.
Manna, in biblical speak, means food from God’s kitchen, which would embarrass the modest couple as a claim. But, by all accounts, their cooking is divine and, more pertinently, they love to share and impart that knowledge and ability.
David the former naval officer soon became a master baker – bread of Devon – and outside catering and food festivals filled their diaries, before opening the cooking school 15 years ago.
There was little they did not cook or offer as a course, be it bread-making, meat, fish and every sort of national cuisine from Indian and Thai to French and Italian.
"I met Jay Emery of Bushman at a food festival and asked if I could cook some food in his oven. His audience doubled and he offered us a Bushman for our school and we started wood-fired oven classes."
The Wood-Fired Oven Cookbook followed, attracting a global readership and soon WFO was an acronym of cooking choice.
David still loves his bread-making, taking his teaching on the road to private houses, while fish classes are popular and make local sense with Brixham on the doorstep.
But WFO is very much now the hero and heart of Manna from Devon and he also takes his outdoor expertise to SEASON, the Exclusive Cookery School at Lainston House hotel in Hampshire, where BBQ magazine is a partner.
"Outdoor cooking is on the rise for a number of reasons. You can’t get an allotment for love nor money. People are making more things at home and it helps you re-engage with your senses. The more technology we work with, the less sensory feedback, so we need to find it to rebalance. Making fire and smelling and tasting great food is all part of that reconnection," says Jones.
"I hate gate-keeping in cooking. It limits your thinking. There is a world of possibilities out there, so don’t restrict yourselves or put labels on things."
But while cooking should not be prescriptive, take heed of the experts and beware of false food prophets.
"Mix education with fun and enthusiasm."
While there is plenty of ‘nice to have’ equipment, David Jones points to the simple woks over hot coals in Asian streets, creating delicious, authentic cuisine.
Handmade clay ovens, brick ovens, steel ovens, 250-year-old stone ovens in France and Spain, Mr and Mrs Jones have tried their hand in most ovens on their travels.
"Wherever we go in the world we tend to make a beeline for any wood-fired restaurants and pinch their menus and ideas. Inspiration can come from anywhere and anything."
He remembers a trip to Romania where every village had a collection of old wood-fired ovens on the go, baking bread and cooking meat.
"The locals found our enthusiasm for what we saw bizarre. It was just what they did, how they ate. What was the big deal?"
He knows his WFO history too, recounting how in France, where grants have been given to revive communal bread ovens, there is political significance. Before the French Revolution the ovens were owned by the aristocracy, which meant they controlled the price and distribution of bread, giving them power over the local communities.
"France still has its Fête du Pain, celebrating bread-making and firing up their ovens."
Jones is fortunate to have quality produce to draw on, be it the local butcher or fish from the Brixham port. "But you should never feel guilty about not using locally sourced produce or the best ingredients, which are certainly not accessible or affordable to all. First and foremost, you should get into cooking to enjoy it. There is nothing worse than being told you’re doing it wrong or having to live up to others’ expectations." The ovens at Manna from Devon need to work hard and perform well. As well as Bushman ovens, there are Alfa and Morso ovens as well as Igneus, all doing what they are designed to and top of their game.
You can tell that they love their ovens as both workhorses and racehorses, but David Jones ends by reminding us that ovens have been around for thousands of years and fabricated from the most basic of materials, with faggots of wood gathered from the floor of the forest for fuel, risking the charge of theft from the landowner.
Whether ancient foragers back then tested the heat of the fire by saying ‘one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi…" is not known.
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