There are good smells coming from behind Peckham Park Road Baptist Church. Robert, the garden project co-ordinator, is laying out some fresh ingredients on a makeshift table, Peter is chopping firewood, a handful of other regulars are relaxing in the sun. And a wisp of smoke is coming from what looks like a huge white beehive on legs.
It’s the pizza oven that Robert and his team have built. The design looks simple, but it’s taken a year to put together. I ask Robert what he knew before he started. “I watched a lot of videos” he says. So the team learned together.
They had to build a stone base, and a wooden structure round it to keep it dry while it was under construction. “It needs a good hat and a good pair of boots” says Robert. Each layer has to dry before the next is laid on, the walls have to be the right thickness, the door must be the right size… it’s a complicated business.
So is stretching dough. Mine is too thick and not really even round. “It looks like a map of Africa” says G to cheer me up. I load it with some tomato puree that Robert has brought from his home-grown supply, some mozzarella and basil. In the right season there are toppings ready to pick in the vegetable garden too. Peter loads it onto his long-handled shovel and we push it into the heart of the oven.
The pizza is done in just a few minutes. Pizza isn’t the right word though: there are people from Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, Iran and Eritrea in the garden on the day I visit and all of them grew up with variations on this oven in their back yards. It’s an oven for whatever kind of bread, for eating together, for relaxing, for remembering, and for enjoying what a bit of imagination and good teamwork can make possible.
I wonder aloud what the future of the oven is. “It should last, if we look after it” says Robert. “The dream would to set up some kind of delivery service to isolated clients who can’t make the journey to the centre, but the problem is getting it out to them” he admits. The logistics are prohibitive, sadly. So for now it’s a very welcome treat for just a few: hot, fresh and just a little bit smoky.