Sweet Heat, Toasty Eats

Made of solid soapstone, the 7-foot high Finnish masonry heater in Uwe Mirsch and Lani Wright's old farmhouse in London, OR. has a dual purpose: heating and cooking. Just one fire in the morning keeps the stove radiating heat into the kitchen all day long, while a separate fire in the oven's firebox will heat the stone to 500 degrees, more than hot enough for oatmeal bread and a chicken roasted with vegetables.

Whip up a cold rainstorm, mix in a late autumn morning dashed with falling leaves, and you have the setting for one very delicious day. Especially here, in Uwe Mirsch and Lani Wright’s 19th-century farmhouse in London (nine miles south of Cottage Grove).

Warmth radiates into the family’s kitchen from a big masonry wood stove fabricated in Finland. On any fall or winter morning, a hot fire kindled at 7 or 7:30 keeps the soapstone stove toasty all day long -like a rock basking in the sun. Anyone who sits on its wraparound bench seat can snuggle up against the gray stone for a warm back. But it’s not just coziness cooked up by the stove. On this blustery morning, Wright also has hand-ground oatmeal bread baking in the stove’s stone oven.

“The masonry heater is really the hearth, the center of the house” says husband Mirsch, whose native German accent and trim brown beard make him perfectly cast for such a down-to-earth lifestyle.”We spend so much time in here sitting, cooking and eating breakfast.”

Made of solid soapstone, the heater has a dual purpose: heating and cooking. Just one three-hour fire in the morning keeps the stove radiating heat into the kitchen all day long. The firebox can be stoked to between 1,500 and 1,600 degrees F. – hot enough to keep the chimney nearly clean of creosote.

Some cast-iron stoves would turn a glowing red at that temperature. The soapstone stove gets hot, too, especially by the firebox. But it’s not blistering to the touch, and on this morning the stove’s back and two sides feel as soothing as a giant hot-water bottle. “On a mild day like this, we won’t need a fire again until tomorrow morning,” sums up Wright, an editor and writer who works at home. “So it’s stingy with wood”. “By the time the smoke goes up the chimney, most of (the heat) has been absorbed by the the soapstone,” says Mirsch. “If you take all the BTUs contained in a given load of firewood, 80 to 85 percent of the energy will be absorbed by the soapstone.”

Uwe uses tree branches and wood scraps to kindle a fire that will reach 1,500 degrees F. in the stove's main firebox

If one is good…

Mirsch has assembled a second Tulikivi in the parlor. Between them, the two masonry heaters keep the home so warm there’s rarely a need for backup from the electric floor heat.

On sunny summer days, in fact, the family’s Tulikivis don’t get a lick of use. Even a quick fire will keep the soapstone radiant for hours, so the family neither heats nor cooks with the big kitchen stove on balmy days.  Fortunately, today is cold and wet. After the baking oven’s fire burned for about two and a half hours, Mirsch scraped the embers into an ash box below. With the clean oven radiating at 500 degrees F. – hot enough for pizza – it was set for a day of cooking.

Wright has a kettle of lentils in the oven when guests arrive about mid-morning. The lentils will later become a lentil sausage stew, because the oven will hold at baking temperatures for hours. Even at day’s end it will be at 100 to 200 degrees F., just right for drying walnuts or making fruit leather.

“There’s not a particularly woodsy smell or taste in the food, because the fire is actually out before you bake in it,” Mirsch says, comparing the stove to brick ovens used at gourmet pizza houses.  “But it’s the same radiant heat. That’s what browns the outside of the bread good and fast and keeps the moisture inside, so the bread is chewy in the middle.”

European Flavor

While the Finnish Tulikivi is beams with soapstone, other masonry heaters from Europe have their own radiance: brick in Russia, porcelain tile in Sweden and tile and plaster in Switzerland, to name a few. All masonry heaters have their particular design styles and materials, but the point is the same: using an extremely hot fire in the firebox and allowing the mass of the fireplace to absorb the energy before smoke reaches the chimney”, Mirsch says. Even a small Tulikivi, one that heats about 1000 square feet, costs about $5000. The biggest and grandest models run up to $25,000. Buying one probably means hiring a mason, because between 2,000 and 8,000 pounds, the stoves typically require concrete footings, slabs or other masonry preparation.

“Our clientele is usually very well educated, environmentally astute and oftentimes has traveled in Europe,” says Mirsch. But the stoves do come in all kinds of designs, traditional to art nouveau, and they will last at least a lifetime. “You also can’t take them with you once they’re installed,” Mirsch says. “They stay put.”

Adapted from an article written by Kelly Fenley for the Home and Garden section of the Eugene, Register-Guard in 1999

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