You may have seen these small, domed buildings, often tacked onto the back of a house, in French villages. They’re part of le petit patrimoine, not significant enough to merit historic monument status but important vestiges of past times, nonetheless. In the days when popping out to the boulangerie wasn’t feasible, the four à pain (bread oven) was one of the focal points of the local community.
In the countryside, bread was the basis of the French staple dish – soup. It was sliced or crumbled into the dish and then the soup was poured over the top. This is partly because most French peasants ate fresh bread only once a week, when they lit the communal bread oven. French people still don’t serve bread with the soup.
Many hamlets had a communal bread oven, a bakehouse separate from the other houses. In feudal times, the oven (four banal) was a privilege granted by the seigneur. He took a tax known as a banalité each time bread was baked in the communal oven, and his vassals were not allowed to bake bread in their houses. This probably explains why the bread had to last so long between cuissons.
Apparently, in rural areas the right of banalité continued up to the French Revolution, but the name, four banal, stuck long afterwards. Some large farmhouses had their own four, and many individual bread ovens were built during the agricultural revolution of the 19th century.
Our area is peppered with small hamlets, which were once more densely populated. Our own lieu-dit was described as a village on the Cassini map, although even then it probably counted only a handful of houses. No bread oven has survived here, but I would be surprised if the place didn’t boast at least one previously.
Four à pain in action
One of the summer walks organised by the commune of Espinas used to include the hamlet of Flouquet. No one now lives there all year round, but at one time it was a thriving agricultural community. Nicole Bessède, who was born and brought up in Flouquet, and her husband Denis, made it an occasion to show the walkers around.
Denis restored the bread oven about 25 years ago, which he lit for us to demonstrate how it worked. The original wooden paddles are still there, on which the bread was put into and removed from the oven. He explained that each family at Flouquet had its own bread oven, although most of them have now disappeared. The people of Flouquet made bread about three times a month. No wonder they had to soak it (tremper) in the soup. They also took advantage of the oven to cook stews and other dishes.
Denis used to bake all the bread for the annual fête at Espinas, which takes place in late August. Since 700 people turn up for the evening repas champêtre, that’s some task. Imagine the weight of responsibility if, like King Alfred, you had too long a siesta and burnt the bread. Revolutions have started for less.
Bread ovens crop up in some surprising places, like this one halfway up the side of a house in Najac. Something of a fire risk, I should have thought.
Perhaps this was a way of avoiding the tax that was once assessed on the ground floor area of a house. This explains why the upper floors of medieval houses often overhang the ground floor by a long way.
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