In August 2012, construction of a wood-fired oven in Leighton-Dillman Park on the Dartmouth Common was completed. Built by Gena Arthur and artisans at Eco-Development, the clay, cob and stone oven, housed in a versatile shed-like enclosure, sat across from the park’s community garden plots looking like it had always been there.
From concept to construction, the Park Avenue Community Oven (PACO) project was led by a group of community volunteers who formed a committee under the Dartmouth Common Community Gardens group, a registered non-profit. With funding from their district councillor and support from HRM Parks, the PACO committee sought to create a space for the community to gather – a meeting place where residents could share their enthusiasm for fresh, local food, meet their neighbours and enjoy the natural beauty of the park.
There were hiccups along the way of course. Frequenters of the park were surprised by the project and concerned about how it would change the space they loved. It was an education for the committee and an opportunity for the community to have a conversation about their beloved public space and it’s potential to evolve to include something new. Completion of the build marked the beginning of the real work (and fun).
From September through December 1st the PACO group learned the ropes of firing the oven – lighting small fires at first to cure the oven, gradually moving on to larger fires for cooking – passing what they learned on to interested community members during a weekly Open Oven held weekly on Saturdays. With more people trained on how to use the oven, the hope is that the community, not the small organizing committee alone, can share the work of hosting public events.
Each Saturday, members of the committee fired the oven and newcomers were shown the proper way to safely light and maintain it. After hours of burning, tending to the fire and heating the oven, answering questions from curious passersby, the food would begin to arrive.
Bread dough, pizza, biscotti, fresh vegetables and chicken were among the first items to be cooked (in some cases burned). As the days went on community members came out to bake, learn about the oven, give tips on how to prepare better pizza or keep a small fire burning, or just talk about baking. People were genuinely excited by the oven, the idea of a space like PACO coming to exist right there “in my neighbourhood.”