As it travels down the road, it looks like an odd steam-age contraption invented by some Victorian-era eccentric that has been loaded onto a trailer hitch towed by a big red truck. But when it stops, parks and is fed kindling to build a roaring fire, it’s clear that the cement-and-steel creation is a lot less curious and a lot more practical.
Since spring, Jessica Shepard has cooked made-to-order pizzas out of her wood-fired mobile brick oven at farmers markets, in parking lots and at private events across the midcoast. The Uproot Pie Co. is pretty new on the local food scene, but it has already created a big buzz — for her delightfully chewy sourdough-based crusts, her use of fresh local ingredients, and the sheer novelty of an oven on wheels.
“I love it,” said Shepard, of the mobile brick oven that she and her partner, Andy White, built in February and March. “I think this thing is a work of art. I think it’s beautiful. People are drawn to it because it’s functional and organic. We get a lot of interest just because people are fascinated about cooking with wood.”
Shepard’s background is all about bread — from studying patisserie at a culinary school in Oregon to stints baking in both wood-fired ovens and traditional ovens in Oregon, North Carolina, Georgia and Hawaii. A native of Cushing, Shepard, now 30, spent the years between graduating from Rockland District High School and returning to Maine in 2007 learning, baking and living, as she calls it, a “nomadic existence,” moving around constantly.
“In 2007 my Mom sent me a picture of this adorable cottage in Spruce Head, and said, ‘Don’t you want to live there?’” said Shepard, who’s home base is in Union. “I really did. So I packed up and dragged myself — uprooted myself, if you will — across the country back to Maine.”
In Maine, she baked at a variety of places, including Sweets & Meats Market in Rockland, with the goal in mind of starting her own business. With the economy in such a bad state and real estate prices skyrocketing on the increasingly popular midcoast, Shepard’s pizza-and-beer joint became less and less likely. So she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“Instead of being in debt up to my eyeballs, why don’t we just build our own thing and put it on wheels and take it around?” said Shepard, who works as a yoga instructor during the winter months. “It was pretty much on from that point on. I was jobless. I spent all my time on the oven. We got it done pretty quickly.”
White, is an accomplished welder, carpenter and sculptor, and did much of the handiwork to create Uproot Pie’s oven. The base of the oven is poured concrete, covered with a layer of refracted cement and plaster, molded to create the signature dome, with two large steel chimneys poking out. The oven is affixed to a trailer, outfitted with a double axle and electric brakes.
“It’s my livelihood on wheels,” she said. “It is pretty solid. I like knowing it’s with me.”
Enough about the technical specifications — what about the pizza? On a given day, Shepard offers three to five types of pies, all between 8 and 10 inches in diameter. She arrives at markets an hour before start time, when it’s still cool from the previous night, to set up and get the fire going — which, because the oven is so well-made and insulated, often takes more than 24 hours to finally cool down. By 9 a.m., it’s time to make the pizza.
“I’m really shocked at how popular it was, right off the bat,” said Shepard. “I thought if I sold 20 pies in a morning, I’d do really well. I’m selling 90 or more at the Rockland market some weeks. It’s crazy.”
Popular topping combinations in recent weeks have been potato, Gorgonzola and thyme, with delicately sliced local potatoes and whole sprigs of fresh thyme. A smoked salmon, dill, caper, red onion and sour cream pizza has also flown out of the oven, along with sausage and caramelized fennel, garlic scape pesto and chevre, and bacon pizza topped with a farm-fresh egg. A whole pie costs between $8 and $10; Shepard also offers sea salt-olive oil and cinnamon-sugar flatbreads to go.
Because she’s at farmers markets four days a week, Shepard has the pick of the litter when it comes to toppings and ingredient sources. Appleton Creamery and Terra Optima Farm, both in Appleton, Treble Ridge Farm in Whitefield and Guini Ridge Farm in Union are some of her providers, along with olive oil from Fiore in Rockland.
“I could charge a little less for the pies and have a little less overhead for myself if I didn’t use the best ingredients, but that isn’t the way I want to make my food,” said Shepard. “I want to feel good about it. I want you to feel good about it, too.”
While the toppings are the best she can find, the star of the show is, of course, the crust. It’s a chewy, substantial cross between a flatbread and something more akin to French or Italian crusty bread, with the tang of sourdough and the subtle hint of smoke and fire.
“I learned how to do French-style baking and patisserie and all that, but I always knew that what I really wanted was to cook with wood,” said Shepard. “There’s something so primal and elemental about it. It’s very satisfying.”
Uproot Pie Co. makes pizzas from 3:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays at the Camden Farmers Market; 9 a.m. to noon Thursdays at the Rockland Farmers Market; and 2 to 6 p.m. Fridays at the Union Farmers Market; and again at the Camden Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Uproot Pie is in Union from 5 to 8 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at Oyster River Wine Growers tasting events. It will also be at the Maine Boats, Homes and Harbors Show Aug. 12-14 on the Rockland waterfront. To inquire about hiring Uproot Pie Co. for a private event, email email@example.com.