Bread be­fore the boulan­gerie

Ruth Wood gets all fired up over tra­di­tional French bread ovens

French Property News - - Contents -

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.

Kneady peas­ants

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 cadas­

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

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