As I mentioned in my post about Thanksgiving Rolls, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador for two years. I started baking bread while I was in the Peace Corps, living in a little two-room cement house in the Andes, way at the top of a hill. To go anywhere I had to hike down the hill, about a 15 minute walk (or 8 minutes if you were in a hurry and took the steep, fast way, and it had better not be muddy or it would be the REALLY fast way).
Anyway, the elevation was well over 10,000 feet (closer to 12,000 if I remember right), and I didn’t have an oven, just a four-burner gas range. My house was also pretty chilly most days. I made some adjustments for altitude, but I can’t remember what they were. And because the house was chilly, my bread never rose very well. I often put it under a desk lamp to help it along.
Anyway, not having an oven was the biggest roadblock to baked goods, but Peace Corps has been in Ecuador since the 1960’s, and volunteers have passed down a workaround, called the campo oven.
I found out about the campo oven from a cookbook the Peace Corps gave us at the end of training, compiled by volunteers, containing both familiar American comfort foods and foods using available Ecuadorian ingredients, and tons of other useful food-related information. It was a lifesaver.
My campo oven consisted of a huge aluminum pot (HUGE) with a brick in the bottom. That’s all. You put the pot over the biggest burner and put the lid on. After 10 or 15 minutes of preheating, you lowered the bread pan or muffin tin or whatever down into the pot and set it on the brick.
Low, medium, and high flame were the available temperature settings, so there was a lot of guesswork as to how long any particular recipe would take. I did not own an oven thermometer, and I baked muffins, bread, and even cake that way.
It is perhaps partly for this reason that I’m loathe to purchase things like thermometers or any kind of “fancy” equipment. I know I can do without. I also didn’t have a real set of measuring cups. I had a mug which I had marked at the 8 oz line, and I just eyeballed half and quarter cups. My teaspoon was an actual tea spoon, and I used another larger spoon for tablespoon measurements.
I am curious what kind of bread I could turn out in that house, using the campo oven, with the things I’ve learned since then about baking bread. I’m sure it would be better. My bread was always pretty dense. When I made rolls at Julia’s house, they were always better, but she had a real oven and lived at a lower altitude.
If I could have gotten a good sourdough culture going, I would have been able to stop worrying about whether I would be able to find the elusive lady in the mercado who sometimes had yeast packets for sale.
Surprisingly, the campo oven wasn’t something the Ecuadorians who lived in my village had ever heard of. They were completely amazed that I could cook cake and bread myself. Most of them didn’t have ovens, either, just gas ranges like mine. Ovens were available, they just were outside of the price range of people where I lived.