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February 6, 2009

Alan Scott, 72, Artisan of the Brick Oven, Dies


Alan Scott, whose blacksmith’s skill in using radiant heat led to a revival of the ancient craft of building brick ovens, allowing bakers to turn out bread with luxuriously moist interiors and crisp crusts, died Jan. 26 in Tasmania, Australia. He was 72.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter Lila Scott. Her father had returned to his native Australia several years ago after becoming ill, she said. Ms. Scott and her brother, Nicholas, now operate OvenCrafters, the company their father opened nearly 30 years ago in a large Victorian home in Petaluma, Calif.

Several thousand amateur bread bakers and thin-crust pizza makers now have backyard brick ovens, many with cathedral-like arches, that were built either by Mr. Scott, with Mr. Scott or according to specifications he laid out with his protégé Daniel Wing in their 1999 book, “The Bread Builders” (Chelsea Green Publishing).

More than a how-to manual, the book is also a meticulous treatise on the history of bread making and the physics of baking, with instructions, for example, on how long to let the dough rise. Mr. Scott, who held instructional workshops around the country, played a role in bringing brick ovens to hundreds of bakeries and restaurants as well.

For centuries, beginning before the Middle Ages, home cooking was done mostly on a family’s open hearth; villagers would share a single brick-oven bakery.

Mr. Scott “took oven designs that were hundreds of years old and refined them,” said Dick Bessey, who teaches oven-building at Kendall College in Chicago and at the San Francisco Baking Institute. Mr. Scott’s drawings, he said, “allowed virtually anybody to build an oven that would perform in a way that would equal the old communal ovens.”

Though he found his inspiration in the past, he used modern materials: high-grade bricks, high-temperature cements and insulation, ranging from Vermiculite, which is used to insulate walls and attics, to ceramic blankets — “if you want to spend a lot more money,” Mr. Bessey said. To build an oven for a homeowner, Mr. Scott would charge $5,000 to $10,000, not including material costs. For even higher fees, he would line an oven with authentic Italian refractory, or heat-resistant, tile and clad it with high-quality cut stone. In most brick ovens, a wood fire is built directly on the hearth floor. When it dies down, the ashes are swept out and food is put in to bake in the radiant heat — far higher than the usual 500 degrees Fahrenheit of a regular oven and sometimes up to 800 degrees. The walls hold the heat for hours, allowing batch after batch of bread to bake.

Brick-oven communities have sprung up on Web sites, with enthusiasts asserting that everything, from fruit galettes to slow-cooked roasts and especially pizza, tastes better when baked in brick scented by wood smoke.

Born in Toorak, Australia, on March 2, 1936, Alan Reid Scott was one of five children of Arthur and Lilian Burbury Scott. Besides his daughter Lila and his son, Nicholas, he is survived by his wife, the former Laura Argyros; another daughter, Samantha Bald; two brothers, Robert and Michael; two sisters, Eleanor Bjorkston and Sylvia Lerch; and a granddaughter.

Mr. Scott graduated from an agricultural college in Australia, then worked for a fertilizer company. “He never wanted to work for anyone else again,” Lila Scott said. “He hitchhiked around Australia, Sudan, Ethiopia and then Denmark, where he opened a jewelry shop.”

He moved to California in the mid-’60s and opened a blacksmith shop by the beach near Point Reyes, fashioning statuettes, chandeliers and hand-foraged fittings for wooden boats. One day, a friend, Laurel Robertson, the author of the cookbook “Laurel’s Kitchen,” asked him to make handles for a brick oven she intended to build. He completely redesigned the oven, employing his knowledge of how heat is best retained.

The project opened up far more than a new line of business. For Mr. Scott, brick-oven building became a way to bring a community together. Indeed, for a smaller fee, he would supervise a gathering of neighbors in building a communal oven, drawing on old traditions. “A lot of his ovens were done like Amish barn-raisings,” Mr. Bessey said.