Doug Spalding took two years to build an outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven and adjoining tea house which he has transformed into a year-round gathering place. Spalding used Monson slate for the mosaic exterior of the oven and a stove door from Bryant's Stoveworks in Thorndike. The tea house was constructed of hundreds of wine bottles, some sent from friends and family as far away as Kansas. (Bangor Daily News/Sharon Mack) 

'PizzAmore': St. Albans man feeds the soul by sharing the bounty of Maine

By Sharon Kiley Mack
Wednesday, July 2, 2008 - Bangor Daily News

ST. ALBANS, Maine - The scent of wood smoke mingles with the heavy perfume of peonies in full bloom when suddenly the pungent fragrance of sourdough fills the air in St. Albans.

Working a tomato leather, dried basil and eight-grain dough, Doug Spalding rolls out a flatbread pizza. He carefully layers it with shrimp that have marinated all day in lime, tequila and Bartlett Estate Wineryís honey mead wine, and finishes it off with fresh asparagus spears and ricotta cheese.

And then, the surprise: He turns gracefully from his workbench and slides the flatbread into his homemade, outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven. His guests gather around, moaning at the tantalizing sight of the food.

One thousand degrees of heat encase the sourdough and toppings and ó in just two minutes ó itís ready. Nearly as quickly, it is eaten.

Spalding has found his purpose: Create something beautiful and delicious, and share it with others.

His popular pizza parties ó not for the public and by invitation only ó transcend cultural or political differences and bring people together over a common love of food.

"Itís about sharing knowledge and getting folks to think more seriously about what they eat," he said. "When we get a great mix of people, we also get a great mix of ideas along with them. I often find that if we can get together as friends around a mutual table, we can better understand why people think the way they do about issues we all face."

Spalding has cooked everything from a bison brisket to pulled pork to french fries in his oven, built over nearly two years.

"I never was a party person," he said at a recent pizza gathering in his garden. "But since Iíve built this oven Iím hosting parties twice a month. Iíd do it three times a week if [my wife] Marian would say yes."

He calls the experience "PizzAmore."

The entire project ó the outdoor pizza oven and its accompanying teahouse (made of wine bottles) ó began because Marian asked for a garden gate.

"I needed a way to get in the garden when the deer fence was up," she said. So, two years ago, she asked Doug, a retired postmaster, to build a gate.

"She thought Iíd put in a little trellis or something," Doug interjected. "She went off to work and when she came home I had already poured a 12-foot-by-10-foot cement slab."

It was a hard time for Doug. He had just lost a dear friend, Newman Gee, also an artisan, in a woods accident, and he was drowning in his grief.

"Doug really needed this project," Marian said.

Along with helping him deal with the loss of his friend, the project opened him up to making new ones.

Two years later, the teahouse and pizza oven are complete and the partying has begun. In winter, the couple starts the oven and then hits more than 5 miles of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails on their 32 acres at the foot of St. Albans mountain.

When the skiing is over, the cooking begins.

In the summer, their large gardens become the backdrop for casual entertaining.

This past week, the Spaldings welcomed a group from Pittsfield and Newport, fed them six different types of artisanal flatbread pizzas ó adding smoked salmon from Sullivan Harbor Farm Smokehouse and a local goat cheese for spreading ó and topped it off with triple chocolate homemade ice cream.

Bob Bartlett of Bartlett Estate Winery in Gouldsboro, a good friend of the Spaldings, was on hand with a selection of award-winning Maine wines, including two that are not even on the market yet, and a triple berry dessert wine.

The moans were many. There was a pulled pork and three-citrus marmalade pizza, a chicken pesto pizza, a barbecued pork pizza, and the decadent shrimp and asparagus pie. Everyone raved about the food, even when the chicken pesto stuck to the oven floor and had to be devoured in pieces, and all said they had a wonderful evening.

But it clearly was Doug who enjoyed it the most.

"Iíve discovered that the food, while good, is only half the fun," he said. "Itís great when people visit each other while waiting for the next pie to come out, and even better when they come in where Iím cooking, usually one at a time, to ask questions and feel the dough.

"Itís fun to try all this great niche food here and to talk to other people about what I find to be really tasty."

A devotee of buying local Maine products, Spalding is careful to use Maine ingredients. Promoting local growers and producers is as much a part of the pizza experience for him as rolling the dough, and once a guest tastes the pizza, the flavors of Maine shine through.

"Sharing Maineís bounty and the bounty of Maineís niche producers is just one of the pleasures I get from cooking, both with the outdoor oven and in general," he said. "Maine has some of the most interesting foods, wines and beers youíll find anywhere."

Spalding said the idea for the pizza oven grew from the 2007 Kneading Conference held in Skowhegan.

"The seminar we took part in was regarding the construction of a wood-fired oven from approximately 400 to 500 bricks and no mortar," he said. "Those in attendance were treated to pizza from a commercial-sized wood-fired oven at the Temple Stream Theater. After firing the oven to prepare it for pizza making we built a smaller oven outdoors of red brick and no mortar. That was fired up while we baked pizzas for lunch in the larger one."

Spalding took that information and honed his skills while helping a friend create an oven in 2007. After that, he began working earnestly on his own oven. "Having built one at my friendís house, building another here at our house was much easier," he said. "The refractory work that makes up the internal parts of the oven go together easily once you have a concept of how high-temperature brick is different from regular building bricks. After the interior of an oven is complete, the exterior becomes a palette to practice your own artistic talents. We chose Monson slate for the exterior."

Beyond the challenge of building the teahouse and oven is the depth of new relationships and experiences Spalding discovered.

"I can meet new people and expand my knowledge of how others view the world. Personally, I really enjoy seeing people experience something new in their lives. Life has become so predictable now. No matter what big-box store you enter, they look alike the world over. Chain restaurants serve predictable food that tastes the same no matter where you are. While thatís OK if all you want is to feed your body, but it doesnít begin to feed the soul."

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