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.
Communal bread oven in Mordagne, Espinas
Inside the bread oven in Mordagne
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.
Beautiful communal Bread oven in Chastel-sur-Murat, Cantal
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.
Bread oven in Flouquet
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.
Bread oven in Flouquet lit
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.
Croissants baked for our delectation at Flouquet
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.
Bread oven protruding from an upper floor
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.
Thanks for posting this wonderful information. I have a breadhouse/oven and recently restored it from a pile of old stones and hope to fire it up. But I am struggling to find ceramic tiles for the oven floor.Any ideas anyone. I am near Caylus.and would dearly love to visit flouquet to get some idea how to make bread.Thanks once again
How wonderful that you have a bread oven. I wish we did! Unfortunately, the bread oven in Flouquet was used only rarely and opened once a year for a demonstration to a group of walkers, of which I was a member. Owing to illness, the people in Flouquet had to stop doing this several years ago, and I’m not sure if it’s possible to see the bread oven anymore. I would have suggested that you ask at the Maison du Patrimoine by the lake in Caylus, since they might have information that could help you. However, in the present situation, I am pretty sure they will be closed. There is a national association, Maisons Paysannes de France, which advises people on the restoration of petit patrimoine. They have departmental advisers, who may know where to find the tiles. http://midi-pyrenees.maisons-paysannes.org/ I hope this helps. In the meantime, I will give it further thought.
Fascinating. I love ‘little’ history, stuff about ordinary people and daytoday lives. I haven’t discovered any bread ovens in our village but the house that once was the village bakery still has an amazing huge oven inside and outside its chimney not only leans, deliberately a la Pisa but is built with a bit of a twist or spiral as it goes up. It’s quite amazing.
Wonderful photos. Love the assortment of ovens and locations. Our village rebuilt a central oven and it’s fun to see the various groups that put it to use – and the new friendships made around the hearth.
When I decided to write the post, I was surprised at how many pix of bread ovens I have. Many have disappeared, alas, including the one that I’m sure would have existed chez nous, but I’m glad to see so many examples of le petit patrimoine being restored.
I too have seen many lovely bread ovens in this Quercy region of France, but have eaten bread from only the one at Mordagne. It was delicious! By the way, as well as gaining space, tax-free, there’s another reason for the upper storeys of a house overhanging the ground floor: an engineering one. If the upper walls are set outside the main footprint, adding weight to the beam ends, the centre of the upper floor is better able to bear the weight of internal partition walls, heavy furniture and the beams themselves, of course. I’ve heard this design practice called "springing" the beams, but that may be an expression from just one part of the UK. xC
I hadn’t heard the other explanation for the upper storeys overhanging the ground floor, but it sounds very plausible. The avoidance of taxation explanation was the one provided by the Tourist Office in Najac when we took the guided tour, but I daresay both reasons have been valid at various times. Had it not been for that guided tour, we would never have known about the suspended bread oven!
Of course I’m delighted to see that beauty in Cantal! Four au pain are a source of delight when wandering around our own area and further afield. We have a friend in Cantal who fires his restored oven up every year as the finale to a Randanee that treks round various villages and ends each evening with a meal cooked by locals. As ever I found your post fascinating and it gave me much food for thought (sorry about the abysmal pun) which I will carry with me for future oven encounters
That one in Chastel-sur-Murat is particularly well restored. Your friend’s event sounds a lovely tradition and something the French always seem to do well. Bread ovens are pretty common where we live – to the extent that we tend to overlook them and forget their significance in times past.
Every summer we make a point of attending several ‘Night Markets’ held on Saturday nights in the village of Audrix, a tiny hamlet in the hills above our village of St. Cyprien. One of the (many) highlights of these events in the piping hot loaves they make right there during the night market in the ancient, though reconstructed wood fired bread oven in the center of the village square. If you are ever in this area of the Dordogne, its well worth dropping by.
Night markets are quite a feature of the landscape around here in summer, but I haven’t yet come across one where they make the bread sur place. I’m really enjoying reading about other people’s experiences with bread ovens and good to see that so many of them are still in existence.
The history and significance of bread ovens in our area is fascinating. When our children’s association was active in the village we used to have a fete du pain with the children making the bread during the day and the commune taking part in an evening ‘repas’ based around food cooked in the ‘four’ in an outlying hamlet. Only yesterday I was discussing the modern four au pain built by a young couple in our village centre which provides our weekly bread and my friend told me it is called a four banale. Too modern I now realise! The parents of a friend have a four au pain in their outbuildings which is sometimes used in summer as the centrepiece for cooking pizzas while we play boules etc. Quite a performance to get it going but a wonderful way to feel in touch with previous and slower times. Thank you for the odd oven in najac!