To make a bread oven

Since a quite long time from now, Alain-Gilles started to turn his mind around bread. Generally in the castles we go, when it's possible, he uses the kitchen oven. Unfortunately lot's of them have been modified for modern reasons and don't give us an optimal medieval way for cooking bread. Sometimes ovens are too small, sometimes they have a modern extraction for the smoke.

Last year in Vallerois (Franche comté, France) Alain-Gilles came with a wonderful idea. Christian and him talked about building an oven during the week with only medieval techniques and tools. We were very enthusiastic about the plan. Alain-Gilles had a contact with a friend who's used to build ovens. Precious advice in the purse, we started by cutting some wood in the forest.

The idea was to make a circular hazel wattle and fill it with stones and earth for the base. Then we used mud to make a stable and regular base for the pavement. The Vallerois Castle is full of objects. Some of them are not really usefull for us but they have a nice amount of old bricks and cut stones of all kinds. We took the big ones to make the sole of the oven, mud for mortar. Baz had also the good idea of making a medieval level to be sure to lie flat. Gilles and I took some wood boards, nailed it at a perfect 90° angle and fixed a plumb line on it. The tool didn't survive till the end but was usefull for most of our work.

The base (photo by Eliane Caramanna)

Then we had two choices: Making all the uncooked bricks by ourself... this would have taken 3 months to dry or buying  non-refractory cooked bricks. We chose that option for evident time reasons.

Baz is the most experimented man in construction of the group and he really seemed to like to play with mud! He started to build a first circle of bricks with a hole provided for the door. Some of us were making clay for fixing the bricks while others were cutting some pieces of wood to lift the next level of bricks. The aim is to make a dome so we have to bend our brick's levels a little bit each time.

The first circles of bricks (photo by Eliane Caramanna)

We used sand, straw and wood to fill the dome to help Baz with the horizontal part of the dome. That material would be removed afterwards.

It was hard work! Hours for our small hands to pull little stones out of the clay and for Baz to ajust bricks by bricks and give the oven the look we wanted and especially the strength we needed in order to bake bread!

The oven - almost finished (photo by Eliane Caramanna)

Every day, there were new steps and each passing day was a small victory. We started the penultimate day by making cob, the mud cover for the bricks. We used a barrel (a modern one unfortunately), some clay, some straw and lot's of water all mixed by feet (actually Baz ones, when I said that this man liked to play in the mud!) We covered the dome with about 6 cm of cob, which is said to be the absolute minimum. This will serve to keep a maximum of heat inside the oven. At last, our oven looks like what we expected. We still have to empty it at tha stage. Carefully Baz (the strong man) and Alain-Gilles (the weakest) entered in the oven one after the other and removed the wooden structure, then the straw and then, all the sand...

A time of silence. Everything seemed to be ok. Our oven is now ready to serve the Duke!

Julien, Alain-Gilles, Baz and Henrik with the finished bread oven (center).  (photo by Eliane Caramanna)

We finished on Saturday by making a small fire in it, to get it dry slowly. We even used it during the banquet to keep food hot. Christian and little Matteo could start making bread dough. After a very nice banquet and a well deserved night we woke up and start the impressive big fire to make the oven as hot as possible, two hours are necessary to have a good temperature that we can keep as long as we need. Then we removed the embers, we cleaned the sole with a birch broom we had prepared. Our baker checked the temperature with flour, this one burned a little bit to fast. He got the oven a little bit colder by putting some water in it and we were now ready to bake the bread! Fourty five minutes later we removed the wooden door and found our bread hot and odorous. The oven worked very well and we can say that we are proud of it.

Actually, having done the oven, we wonder why not more people start on such a project. I admit it is a lot of work, but the construction is really simple. The instructions above should be all you need to know.

Baking the first bread in the new oven (photo by Eliane Caramanna)

That kind of projects is the kind of things that the Company of Saynt George can offer, it is based on friendship, madness and passion. This is what I was searching for when I asked to Mathieu to become a recruit of the company. I would like to thank by the way all the people I met in Vallerois, the kitchen team for the welcome meals every day, the others for being there and working, giving us the impression to work at the XVth century and of course the oven team: Alain-Gilles, Baz, Gilles, Henrik, Kasper and Mathieu for giving me that chance to be one of them.

By Julien Desart, Recruit Company member.