By North House Folk School
There’s a wood-fired brick oven in Costa Rica, and the oven’s Lake Superior keystone isn’t its only connection with the North Shore. The oven was built last summer by North House students Jeff Larson and Nancy Alvarado.
Nancy was a PeaceCorps volunteer in the rural village of San Marcos de Cutris years ago, and she stayed connected to the the community and visited often. On one visit she spoke with a family about how great it would be if the region had access to fresh baked bread. Another PeaceCorps volunteer had built a small mud and clay oven behind the community center, but after he left it had fallen into disrepair.
“We were dreaming about what you could do in San Marcos that hadn’t been done yet,” Nancy said.
At the very same time, her friend Jeff was at North House Folk School taking the Building a Wood-fired Brick Oven course with dreams of his own.
“He sent an e-mail about this great class he took,” Nancy said. “He said‘Wouldn’t it be cool if someday we could build an oven in Costa Rica?’ Ironically I’m typing the same e-mail, ‘You know that oven class? Why don’t you see if there’s even potential we could build one of these ovens here.”
Call it serendipity or fate, the idea for the Costa Rica oven connection was born.
They thought a lot about the best way to undertake the project. Nancy didn’t want to build a community oven and have the effort fizzle out after a few years. Instead she wanted to build it for a family that would really benefit from having an oven of their own.
Brick by Brick The Perez family of San Marcos de Cutris, Costa Rica, stand in front of their newly completed wood-fired brick oven. North House students Jeff Larson and Nancy Alvarado helped build the oven so the family could provide the region with fresh-baked bread.
“When you provide a way for individual families to become more sustainable and provide something not currently available, then everybody benefits,” she said. “We wanted to identify a family that could not only gain a new source of income, but who would have enough of a relationship with the community as a whole that they could provide for the community as well.”
The very family with which she had dreamed up the idea stood out. The mother already had a flock of 120 chickens and a broad customer base to work with. The children hadn’t finished school, instead finding jobs to help support the family. And the father worked hard but for minimal income.
“We not only felt like it would be successful for the family,” Nancy said. “But they are also pretty well connected and always receptive to new ideas and trying something different.”
Nancy and Jeff both audited the oven building class at North House in preparation for their trip, and raised funds to help cover the cost of materials and gathering supplies. A team of volunteers from Minnesota traveled to Costa Rica to work on the project, but folks from the San Marcos community also pitched in.
“Every time we were working, four to five people from the community came to help,” Nancy said. “One cement guy came to help with pouring the cement.
Another helped build the structure over it. A man who does welding and soddering helped cut the hole for the chimney and helped with the door. The whole community made it happen, it was pretty cool.”
A year later, the oven is being used to make a variety of delicious treats including coconut-filled empanadas, cinnamon and pineapple rolls, cheese stuffed breads and different varieties of coffee cakes. Nancy is travelling back to Costa Rica this summer to help refine bread baking recipes, as the heat and high humidity have presented challenges in working with yeast.
The oven itself has been a solid fixture in the community–both figuratively and physically. About a month after the oven was complete, a strong earthquake occurred in Costa Rica. In spite of damage in the area, the oven survived the magnitude 7.6 tremor.
“We built the oven to help out a family and to help out a village,” Jeff said. “It’s been kind of cool because this oven that we learned how to make up in Grand Marais is a gathering spot in San Marcos.”
And as for that keystone? The oblong, grey Lake Superior rock that sits just above the hearth was handpicked from the lakeshore by Jeff on a visit to Grand Marais. It’s the perfect connection between two places–far apart geographically, but with a rock solid connection.