On a walk around the village one evening, Annick points out a banner to me: pains et foyesses, au feu de bois. The community oven is being reopened, for a day. Another day, another way to cook bread.
In the past, community ovens, called bakehouses, were common in this part of the world. Every day, the wood – burning oven was heated, and everyone in the community brought their bread dough. The tradition has roots in feudal times, when the local lord still owned all the machinery for grinding flour and baking the dough. He would tax the peasants per loaf, or even outlaw personal ovens as a way to gain income. Even after the ovens became communal property, they remained a sort of social place, where neighbors gathered and did daily business.
(Interestingly, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a bakehouse in North America, not even in the oldest parts of the east coast. I was quick to hypothesize that a lack of a feudal system prevented its spread, but a little research led to a different conclusion. French settlers in Canada had supposedly tried to imitate European bakehouses, but found that the distances from home to bakehouse were too far and too cold, killing the yeast in the bread before it could be baked.)
Most French households today have an oven, and the bakehouse usually remains shut. But a few times a year, a community association opens up the doors, warms up the oven, and bakes bread there again. I was lucky enough to arrive just in time.
The day of the bread baking, Annick, Thierry, and I arrive in the early afternoon. Unfortunately, the bread has already finished baking, and the oven has been cleared out. But a kind Frenchman opens up the doors and explains everything to me anyway. The oven has been heating up since the day before, and the bread went in early in the morning. The oven cooks pretty evenly, big as it is, though they did thoroughly char one of the first batches. The gentleman indulges all my questions, as I reverently touch the walls of the still-warm oven.
Outside, taking refuge under a tent from the drizzling rain, people drink soda and wine and chat. Looking at the pile of breads, Thierry tells me to choose. I struggle; they all look so beautiful. Afterward, I stand and talk with some locals, answering questions of what I’m doing in this little village and where I come from. In turn, I ask them about life here, and what their homes are like. Drinks are passed around and tongues loosen up. We leave, eventually, smiling and carrying our bread back home.
Though it may not be in use everyday, this bakehouse remains a gathering place. It’s good to see some traditions still alive and well, if only a few times a year. I, for one, felt very lucky to be able to see a communal oven being used again. And, at the very least, I didn’t have to pay some snooty French feudal lord to do it.