…to bring you this wonderful excerpt from the memoir A Life of Her Own: A Countrywoman in Twentieth-Century France by Emilie Carles. Sent in by reader Tom, it provides a fascinating window into the baking culture of a remote village in the Clarée Valley in extreme southeastern France (up in the Alps, donchaknow). For all those who thought my stories about European peasants and weekly baking schedules strained credulity, get a load of this:
“…once the crops were stored in the granaries, the cattle brought in, and the wood cut into logs, the peasants baked their bread. They made enough for six months; it couldn’t be done later for according to custom, bread had to be baked in the communal oven, and after November the cold, snow, and bad weather didn’t allow that kind of activity.
“Those communal ovens were of considerable size; there were several in the commune, one at Rosiers, one here at Val-des-Prés, and another at Draille. On All Saints Day the peasants brought their wood-each family arriving with its loaded cart. Then they pooled the wood and divided it into piles. The first, for starting up the oven, was immense, and each of the others was smaller in turn. The hard thing was bringing the oven up to temperature. There was no problem when it was hot -it had simply to be maintained, but the first person to bake his bread ran the risk of an insufficiently heated oven. That is why when the piles of wood were ready, the peasants drew lots to avoid arguments and inequity. Everyone drew a number; it was the simplest of lotteries with little pieces of paper folded and placed in a hat, and thus the die was cast: “You’re number one, you’re two, you’re three,” and so on up to the last pile of wood. Whoever got number one was on duty. It was up to him to light the oven and get it hot; the work was extremely arduous; for ten hours or more, you had to load cord after cord of wood into the oven without ever knowing for sure whether the temperature was right. After that, it was much easier, as the oven would work smoothly.
“Tradition decreed that number one, “the loser,” take charge of the process. It was his job to announce the date and time for starting the oven, and the next day or the day after, he baked his bread just as he’d decided. The others followed. Those were utterly exceptional times, holidays almost, at least for us children, since bread wasn’t the only thing they made. The women took advantage of the oven to turn out cakes, tarts, and cabbage pies. They threw themselves into the task wholeheartedly, each joyously shaping her dough as she pleased before it went into the oven.
“I remember that during those days my father was everywhere at once, at the kneading trough, the oven, the hayloft. Besides making our family’s bread, he served as baker for those who couldn’t do it for themselves. In a village, there are always people unable to work, the old, and the sick, and my father took care of them. That he prepared their dough and then baked it was entirely in keeping with the way he did things. We helped him, my brothers and sisters and I, as well as we could. He did the kneading, and we made up the loaves. When they rose enough, we placed them on large boards covered with bran and then carried them over to him. Usually he was doing what was called escouber in the local dialect: that is, he swept the embers with pine tree branches, took the bread shovel, and, as we handed him the loaves, flung them expertly into the back of the oven. The bread was done in an hour’s time.
“This bread was meant to last the whole winter, and we carried it to the hayloft where we spread it out on huge hanging trestles, and we’d go fetch it up there as needed. Obviously, it was as hard as wood; to soften it ahead of time, we’d hang a few loaves in the sheep pen, just above the sheep. The heat and humidity softened it to a point, but it was a far cry from fresh bread and from one end of winter to the other, we ate it stale. We used a special knife, yet it was so hard to cut that it shattered into fragments that scattered to the four corners of the kitchen. But it was good: that bread had an extraordinary smell, and what a taste! My sisters and I fought over the crusts, sucking on that bread with as much delight as if it had been cake. Dunked in cafe au lait, it was a feast.
“Once the bread was made, it was winter. The first snows come early around here. Winter brought radical change into peasant life. Today, with central heat, television, cars, and all the rest, there is practically no difference between seasons, but in those times, it was night and day. Cold rooms were closed off, wood provided the only heat, and stoves were still a rarity. As a shield against the cold, families confined themselves to the common rooms: the kitchen with its fireplace, and the stable where the warmth of the animals maintained a bearable temperature.”
I love so many things about this, I scarcely know where to begin. It made me think of Mario Batali making bruschetti on one of his television shows, where he instructed viewers to pile their topping on “a nice thick piece of REAL peasant bread”. When he said that, I’m pretty sure he meant a baked-that-day slice of perfectly crusty, lily-white artisan bread with gas pockets as big as quarters, not a stale, sheepy, dense-as-pressboard, hunk of whole meal boule. But I’ll go check the cookbook just to be sure.
We are spoiled, spoiled…lucky, lucky, lucky people. Or have you heard me say that before? Thanks Tom!