Bread ovens

Bread in rural France from the start of the 20th century

Four communal. (1947)Mucem

In the French countryside until 1950–1960, bread-making was still often a household task, despite the existence of professional boulangeries.

Façonnage des pains de seigle avant enfournage dans le four banal de Ventelon. (1946)Mucem

This vital knowledge was therefore shared around whole communities, and was a source of exchange, social interaction, local dialects and expressions, and bread in specific shapes and weights, with the food prepared being linked to the territory and the seasons.

Chez Monsieur Arfeuillère. Chauffage du four à pain. (1944)Mucem

Only one person would be entrusted with bread-making and oven maintenance within a family or farm. Bread remained the staple food of a large part of the French population until the beginning of the 20th century.

Four à pain commun banalMucem

Shared bread oven

In mountainous regions, but also sometimes on the plains, houses were often grouped closely together in the center of the village, and as a result, there was only one shared bread oven, a separate building situated at the center or on the edge of the village.

Maison avec four à pain attenant, en encorbellementMucem

A bread oven built into the house

In other regions, bread ovens were found inside the house. These would most often be found next to the main chimney, which would be used for heating, cooking and even as a source of light during winter.

Photographie - Boulangerie de Saint-Viâtre. FourMucem

La boulangerie

What is known communally as the four à pain (bread oven), was actually a building that could be used for a range of purposes such as storing wood for the oven, and could also contain the room used for the boulangerie, where the bread was made.

Entrée d'un four à painMucem

Visit to an oven

Building an oven required a remarkable mastery of knowledge.

Four à pain à proximité du bâtiment le plus ancien. 18è siècle.Mucem

The entrance to the oven was usually made of stone and covered with a semicircular arch. In general, oven entrances were made of elaborate stone masonry.

Four à pain : extérieur. EntréeMucem

The boulangerie and bread oven were covered with a roof, with the materials used to build this roof depending on their availability in the region.

Feu à l'intérieur du four à painMucem

Oven, operating instructions

Before baking bread, the oven must be prepared and pre-heated to be ready to receive the dough.

Pignon avec amas de bois pour le four à painMucem

Preparing the oven

This is done in two steps. The first step takes place the night before the bread is baked: bundles of sticks are placed into the oven, which is cold, to gradually raise the temperature until the flames touch the bricks of the arch and the oven floor.

Bourg. Four communal. (1946)Mucem

The oven is heated with bundles of sticks belonging either to the farmer or to the whole community who all chip in an even amount to bring the wood needed for making bread. The next day, the oven's temperature is raised more quickly.

Le fourMucem

This is because the accumulation of heat stored in the bricks of the oven floor, the flat surface on which the uncooked bread is placed, and the arch, makes the oven hot enough to bake the bread. The oven can reach between 446°F and 482°F (230–250°C).

Homme enfournant le pain avec une pelle (1943)Mucem

The bread is cooked for around 45 minutes, and the oven is cooled to 356°F (180°C). This is the best time to make use of this heat by using it to cook brioche, pies and tarts that need to be baked more slowly and at a lower temperature.

Credits: Story

Commission: Edouard de Laubrie

Credits: All media
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