Friday, July 1, 2011

Bread and Fire

If I say French bread, you immediately know exactly what I'm talking about. Long golden loaves standing on end in wicker baskets, great with cheese and pate on the first day, still tolerable if you sprinkle water on it and put it in the oven for 10 minutes the next. The day after that you could be done for going equipped with an offensive weapon.

Marie Antoinette just hadn't a clue. Bread is the staff of life. French children are given the hard ends to teethe on. You don't find kids in their pushchairs amusing themselves with a bag of sweets: they have a piece of bread, and they like it.

The potato is not natural to the French, even if they do grow them here. Rarely do you get boiled spuds with your meal - but even if you do, you will also get bread. And in Brittany, you get butter, too, which you don't in the Poitou. If there is sauce to be mopped up, what you want is bread, and plenty of it.

There are illustrations from the 14th and 15th centuries showing bread raising in long cloth-lined baskets, exactly as it is done today.  Making bread was then subject to particular laws: after all, in towns where most of the buildings were of highly flammable construction, it made sense to ensure that the ovens were separate, and safe. There were the millers who ground the flour: the blatiers who made the flour for the boulangers, who in turn were responsible for kneading and raising the dough, and fourniers who cooked the bread. In 1305, there was a statute which said that the fourniers must cook bread seven days a week, 365 days a year, even when all other work was banned.

In the country things were different. Each family could make their own bread from their own flour, but had to bake it in the oven of the local lord - and no doubt pay for the privilege.

There are still laws about bread: we had a friend who used to rent a watermill, and made flour - good, wholegrain flour. They had an oven on the premises, and could make bread - but they were banned from selling it to the general public. Only a boulanger, or a recognised outlet should there be no boulanger in the village, can do that.

Just up the road from here, someone is renovating a bread oven. It is made of stone, and hemispherical, with a conical roof in clay, wood, and slate. You can see ruined ones attached to many of the old houses here. We had such an oven at the last house, and the interior was a dome lined with brick. The previous owners said they cooked pizzas in it for parties, but that seemed rather a lot of work for a small outcome.

Naturally we had to have a go.

Now, there is something about fire which attracts men (and some women). We told a friend our plans, and he was there, ready to set light, the next day. It was a bitterly cold morning in March, and it seemed like a good, warm thing to do. Faggots of kindling were put into the oven and ignited, and gently added to as time went on. Well, until the friend - Stoker, as he is now known - decided this was all a bit tame, and, true to his name, stoked things up. In the meantime, I was in the real kitchen, raising three kinds of dough.

The oven thermometer had gone critical out in the bread oven: it runs out at 350C. We had to wait for things to cool down. The bread oven room remained cold, though - the heat stayed in the oven, the smoke went up the chimney outside the oven door. Time passed. Bread cooks at pretty high temperatures: but if you put it just inside an oven which has already been off the scale, it burns in an instant. It went in, it turned black, it came out - all in the count of three.

I cut the top off, covered it with foil, and waited.

Eventually we managed three reasonable loaves: but the oven was still hot, and no country person would have wasted that heat. I put in three different casseroles, too, including a Guernsey bean pot, and we closed the door and went away.

In fact, I could have put a leg of lamb in there, and left it overnight, and it would have fallen off the bone by lunchtime. The oven was still at 150C next morning, with the iron door shut.

It seemed clear to me that, in a small village, everyone could have cooked a dish of some sort once the bread was finished, without adding a single piece of wood after the initial burn. We had food for a week. It was an excellent, economical way of cooking (once we had mastered the art of temperature control, or tied Stoker's hands behind his back, which would have done the job). One woman got to work her socks off (and I did raise the dough in the electric oven, as it was too cold to do it any other way), and two men played with fire for a good reason.

Give a man a fire, some fresh bread,  and the promise of dinner, and what more can he ask?


1 comment:

  1. A bottle of wine?
    It sounds like you had a splendid time - I made some bread at Christmas but not in such spectacular fashion.