Building a clay oven is a little like a barn raising, the owners of Napa’s Fatted Calf and their friends discover: When the work’s done, the celebration starts.

There’s nothing like a new trend that got its start 4,000 years ago. That’s the case with clay ovens--specifically, the domed clay ovens that have begun appearing in more and more Northern California backyards, looking like homages to the Babylonian era.

Not long ago, Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller, the owners of Napa Valley’s acclaimed Fatted Calf Charcuterie, constructed one of these ovens behind their house. They did it the California way--by inviting a group of friends over for a few weekends in a row to build the thing, and then, once it was done, having everyone back for an outdoor feast, cooked in the oven they had all labored to create.

The first weekend, Boetticher, Miller and their friends put together a roughly four-foot-high base using stones and cement, which they topped with bricks to make the oven’s floor. The following weekend, they constructed the dome. First, they “puddled” together clay, sand and straw to create cob--the substance that would form the oven walls. Next, they shaped a dome of wet sand about three feet high. Finally, they molded the cob in layers over the sand, letting each layer dry before adding another. The last step was to cut a door in the oven and pull out the sand.

Napa pizza party

Guests. © James Baigrie

Easier said than done. Michael Terrien, the co-owner and winemaker of Napa’s Kazmer & Blaise and Obsidian Ridge, was walking to his car the first time the group tried removing the sand. “I was unlocking my door when I heard this terrible chorus of ‘Aaargh!’ over by the oven,” he says. The dome had collapsed.

“We thought, Let’s go ahead and cut the door, pull the sand out and get that cathartic experience,” Boetticher explains. “But the dome wasn’t dry enough.”

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They rebuilt the dome, let it dry fully and cut the door without incident, and the following Saturday found Boetticher firing up a bundle of hardwood in the back of the oven to prepare the feast. When the temperature was high enough (clay ovens can reach more than 800 degrees), he used a long-handled peel to slip in a pizza topped with Andante Dairy goat cheese, sliced summer squash and walnuts. The oven-building crew was there, sampling some of the bottles that the two wine pros in the group had brought: a crisp 2007 Stonestreet Chardonnay and a focused 2006 Obsidian Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon.

Napa pizza party

Sampling squid pizza. © James Baigrie

Clay ovens cook pizzas in about two minutes, so Boetticher barely had time to take a step back before sliding the peel in again to take the pie out. “We’re using a mix of hard and fruit woods--black walnut, oak, alder, cherry--plus some barrel staves to spike the fire through the afternoon,” he said as the pizza appeared, the crust crisp and crackling and the cheese reduced to tangy pools.

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Geoff Palla, the resident farmer at the Chez Panisse Foundation’s Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley, yelled to Boetticher in mock-outrage, “Hey! This pizza tastes like clay!” In fact, the pizza was herby, summery and insanely good. But giving each other a hard time seemed to be de rigueur in this group of longtime friends. It includes Michael Emanuel, a Napa-based private chef, who slid in a pizza of his own--rings of squid with a garlicky saffron aioli--that was delicious with Terrien’s lemon-creamy 2007 Kazmer & Blaise Boon Fly’s Hill Chardonnay.

Clay ovens promote a communal feeling--building one is a modern version of a barn raising--and it’s true that everyone at this party had cooked together, or worked together, or was related to one another. Terrien, for instance, teams up occasionally with Boetticher and Miller for events around the Valley. Gilian Handelman, the wine educator for Jackson Family Wines, met the hosts when they catered a party for her mother. Palla met Boetticher at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. “It’s hard not to like a guy when you meet him in a parking lot and he’s giving you hunks of pork,” he remarked.

On cue, Miller emerged from the house with a massive, herb-crusted pork loin. Guests heaped plates with slices of meat and helpings of Emanuel’s green-bean salad, made with oven-roasted red peppers.

“You know,” said Boetticher, sipping a glass of blackberry-rich La Jota Cabernet Franc and considering his new oven, “anyone can make one of these, but it definitely helps when you’re friends with an architect and a general contractor.”