Bread before the boulangerie
Ruth Wood gets all fired up over traditional French bread ovens
Are you lucky enough to have an old communal bread oven on your property?
Crumbs! The French are passionate about le pain aren’t they? Dipping it into morning hot chocolate, draping it in jambon-fromage for lunch, serving it in a basket alongside le dîner – apparently the only thing they never do with it is mop up soup, at least in polite company! Take the baguette, for example. Wheat, water, yeast and salt are its sole ingredients, yet it is “the envy of the whole world”. That is how President Emmanuel Macron described the humble French stick earlier this year when he backed calls to get it listed as a UNESCO cultural treasure.
Did you think that Lewis Hamilton was the only person to win the French Grand Prix this year? Mais non, the title also went to Mahmoud M’seddi, the nation’s newly crowned baker laureate. As winner of the Baguette Grand Prix 2018, the Parisian artisan now has the distinguished honour of baking the president’s daily bread and pastries for the next year.
Something to prove?
It’s true that French politicians need to get their heads round bread to show they are down with the people, even though bread consumption is only a third of what it was in the 1950s. No doubt they remember that Marie Antoinette had her head chopped off a few years after (allegedly) suggesting that starving peasants should eat brioche if there were bread shortages – the infamous “Let them eat cake” comment.
Two centuries later, during his successful 1981 presidential campaign, socialist candidate François Mitterand managed to unsettle conservative rival Valéry Giscard D’estaing by asking him if he knew the price of a baguette. Mind you, a true French statesman should not need to know the price of bread because he would surely bake his own. After all, Mitterand’s boyhood home in Charente had two bread ovens in the kitchen and we know this because it is currently on the market for €667,800 (see listing below).
Yes, before France became a nation of boulangeries (almost 30,000 but their number is falling), it was a nation of bread ovens. The vast majority fell out of use during the First World War but thousands are still standing, in various states of (dis)repair. If you are lucky enough to own a bread oven at your French property, it could be your chance to restore a cultural treasure and perhaps even make it the centrepiece of a new pool house, summer kitchen or charming little gîte.
Even if you have a bread oven on your land, you may not own it. If it is a self-standing structure set apart from the house, there’s a good chance it was once a communal oven and may be owned by the community, so always check with the French land registry on cadastre.gouv.fr
The idea of a communal oven sounds very charming, but before the French Revolution of 1789-99, it was also a means of controlling the poor. Under the French feudal system, peasants were not allowed to bake bread in their own homes but were obliged to use the oven belonging to their lord as well as his mill and wine press. There were some benefits for the people; a communal oven is more efficient and less of a fire risk; but the tax (called a banalité) demanded by lords for the use of their facilities was deeply unpopular and, after numerous peasant revolts, the system of feudalism was abolished in August 1789. The communal bread oven became public property and baking became a more pleasant ritual of country life.
Early risers An essay by Pierre and Christiane Maille for Maisons Paysannes in 1988 describes the festive atmosphere of le jour du pain on a little farm in Cantal:
“Early in the morning, the household awoke with joyous enthusiasm and was soon a hive of activity in which each player knew their part.
“With several helpers, the mistress of the house prepared the dough, as had her mother and grandmother before her.
“Meanwhile, the children carried dry bundles of twigs from the hut to the oven, where the master of the house carefully arranged them. Then the fire was lit, using very dry broom. The children were always transfixed by this blaze at the oven entrance. When it had consumed itself, the oven was scraped and swept, the ash harvested and the floor of the oven wiped with a wet cloth.
“Meanwhile the dough cobs, dusted in flour, were brought out in cloth-lined baskets ( paillassons) Each cob was placed on a broad wooden paddle, marked with a double cross and then placed in the hot oven. The cooking was closely watched, the bread being broken only when, on ‘sounding’ it (tapping the bottom of the loaf and listening for a hollow sound), one knew it was well cooked. Then it was placed back in the baskets and you had a good wheat and rye bread with a crispy crust and a tender crumb.”
Baked to last Bread ovens were built in all shapes and sizes and usually of the same stone as the local houses. They often faced north-east to shelter them from the prevailing wind and were built close to a water source so that the oven floor could be cleaned before baking.
Some were like miniature houses with pitched roofs and had ample space to store wood and even keep animals. Some were lean-tos on the gable ends of homes, barns or fournils (an outbuilding that evolved into the modern-day bakery) and had chimneys.
Others were built directly into the house chimney or even the stairwell. In rural Brittany, you see lots of small stand-alone granite ovens with turfed dome roofs and no chimneys.
Originally the mouth of the oven was closed during baking by an iron door or flat stone, though many of these have disappeared. Stick your head into this mouth ( gueule) and you’re in a vaulted chamber ( la voûte) with a domed ceiling laid with narrow bricks or tiles. The best vaults are not perfect domes but have a flattened profile as they are easier to heat, yet still give people plenty of space to lay their bread.
The most popular method for building the vault was to build a mound of well compacted soil to the desired shape, then add the masonry on top. Once the work was finished and the lime mortar well taken, the builders would empty out the earth through the mouth of the oven.
The floor ( la sole) or hearth ( l’âtre) of the oven was usually laid with tiles, flat stones or heat-resistant bricks. The walls around the vault were made as chunky and solid as possible to conserve the heat and were often packed with stones, broken tiles, sand and rubble.
Just below and to the side of the oven mouth was a little niche to collect the ash and embers. In some regions, the hollow space below the vault created during the laying of foundations was left as a séchoir to dry out wood, linen or hemp, though this could lead to heat loss. Some ovens also had a separate chamber fitted with plank shelves above the main vault and connected to it with a valve. After the bread had been baked, this valve could be opened and the residual heat used to smoke meat or dry fruit.
The children carried dry bundles of twigs from the hut to the oven, where the master of the house carefully arranged them
Labour of loaf
A century after they fell out of favour and use, old bread ovens are enjoying something of a renaissance.
Brittany-based renovation expert Matt Chalk told me he was overjoyed when the old communal oven in his hamlet was restored to working order by a retired mason.
“The interior of the vault was left as it was because it was absolutely immaculate and, in any case, building something like that is really a lost skill,” said Matt, who runs MC Renovation. “The outside walls of the oven were rebuilt with stone, sand and cement, and fresh earth was heaped on the roof and reseeded with grass.
“Then we had a fête where the whole village and the next village along got together to make bread, prepared by the local boulangerie. It was quite a thing. They are very proud of what they’ve managed to achieve. I think there is a growing sense that bread ovens are part of the heritage of the nation and have to be restored.”
There is a growing sense that bread ovens are part of the heritage of the nation and have to be restored
Breadmaking day at a communal oven in Cantal
A communal oven in Cantal in 1899; note the ‘paillassons’ (baskets) carried on the head